New Role: Caregiver of Memories

For a few years after my parents died and my caregiving role ended, I was at loose ends. I felt like I had washed ashore on a deserted island and did not know what to do with myself. I tussled not only with feelings of abandonment, guilt, regret, and sorrow but also with questions of self-worth. Caring for my parents had been exhausting, both emotionally and physically, but I realized that I liked being needed.

Mom died in 2011, and Dad passed away three years later. By then, my oldest daughter was a cool college co-ed, my son was a junior in high school, and my youngest child was in middle school. Seven years had passed since Mom and Dad moved to Jefferson City, Missouri, to live near me. After they were gone, my children and my husband needed me, but not to the same extent my parents had.

I grappled with each emotion, one by one. I realized that even though it did not make sense to feel like an abandoned orphan, emotions and logic don’t always coincide. I talked to other late-in-life orphans and found that their emotions mirrored mine. Turned out, I wasn’t crazy when I longed to give my mother one more hug. I just missed the woman who had chatted with me after school and who had enjoyed baking and eating Mrs. Goodcookie treats with me. I was normal!

I also experienced guilt and regret for what I didn’t do. Several months before she died, Mom had wanted to visit a grocery store. Not to shop necessarily, but to look at what she could buy. Soup, meats, ice cream–Mom was like a kid in a candy store. So many options, impossible to try everything. I never honored Mom’s request, and I regretted it. I tried to absolve my guilt by recalling the times I had taken her to grocery stores. On multiple occasions, we spent so much time in stores–Mom in a wheelchair and Dad with the grocery cart–that I had to leave them shopping while I rushed to pick up one or more children from school before returning for my parents and their haul. Recalling those times assuaged my guilt a little bit, but even today, twinges of regret periodically prick my conscience.

I eventually adjusted to a new normal, just like I had somewhat adjusted to Mom and Dad’s living in town when they used to live 600 miles away. I realized that I had not been the perfect caregiver, but it was okay. I had struggled to keep track of Mom’s and Dad’s medical needs, check my children’s homework, create special dinners for my family and parents, hold a job, spend time with my husband, fill pillboxes every week, and volunteer at my children’s schools all without screaming every five minutes or running away. I like to think I was perfectly imperfect.

I slowly found myself slipping into a new role: caregiver of memories. I recall stories in my blog and for my children. I relive events in my mind and during conversations with my siblings. I display family pictures. I wear one or more of my mother’s bracelets every few days. And my dad’s old flannel robe? Gotta wear that, of course. Nothing is more comfy!

I wear the red, plaid robe similarly to how Dad wore it: loosely belted over a T-shirt and pajama bottoms. When I put it on, I remember Dad’s wearing it while drinking a cup of instant coffee, eating yet another slice of toast with jelly, and sitting at the long wooden table my parents bought second-hand for their kitchen in Pittsburgh.

I recall snippets of conversations from my visits. “Good morning, Lisa,” he might say as I entered the kitchen. “Help yourself to whatever you want. Have some orange juice. Would you like some scrambled eggs?”

“I’d love some eggs, Dad,” I envision myself saying. “Thanks.”

 

A gardening legacy

By Lisa Yorkgitis Nahach

When I noticed small yellow flowers on my tomato plants in early June,  I was thrilled. I knew that before long, I would see tiny tomatoes. I wondered if I should fertilize so that I could get even more blooms and tiny tomatoes. If so, what kind should I use? How much? How often?

“Oh, how I wish I could ask Dad about it,” I thought aloud.

Farmer Ed
Farmer Ed looks so proud of his crops. I don’t remember his growing corn, so one of my siblings must have snapped this shot a long time ago. I primarily remember his tomato plants. The corn looks amazing, and I imagine it was tender and juicy, like good corn should be. Note the tomatoes in the foreground and the massive pine trees in the background. Farmer Ed was in his element.

Dad was an avid tomato gardener. He tended a strip of land outside his assisted-living apartment, and his plants produced so many tomatoes that we had to get down on our knees and lift branch after branch to find all of the tomatoes. Even then, we never could be sure that we had found all of the ripe tomatoes. I hated finding rotten ones that we had missed.

Until I began helping Dad with his plot here in Jefferson City, Mo., I had never tended a vegetable garden. Oh, I had dabbled in flower gardening, but growing vegetables always seemed out of my league. Ditto for my husband. Early in our marriage, he had tried growing cucumbers, lettuce, potatoes, and green beans, but he had little success, thanks in part to the neighborhood rabbits.

Dad gardened regularly during my youth in Pittsburgh, but his efforts barely registered on my radar. I was more interested in reading, swimming, dancing, and other activities. He and Mom canned numerous jars of tomatoes, and I enjoyed tomato-rich meals like chili and spaghetti. However, Mom did most of the cooking, something she could do fairly easily, despite her arthritic knees.

For my Dad's funeral, my siblings and I commissioned an arrangement of tomatoes and assorted potted flowers, including this iris my sister Elaine planted at her home in Minnesota. It looks beautiful in her garden.
For my Dad’s funeral, my siblings and I commissioned an arrangement of tomatoes and assorted potted flowers, including this iris my sister Elaine planted at her home in Minnesota. It looks beautiful in her garden.

Consequently, I was not prepared for the abundance of produce Dad offered when he first planted tomatoes here three years ago. “Take as many as you want,” he would tell me with a wave of his hand. At first, I hesitated, but I could tell that Dad wanted to share his bounty. He was proud of his tomatoes, and at that point in his life, he had so few opportunities to give of himself. My refrigerator overflowed with tomatoes.

Fortunately, I ran across my mother’s recipe for meatballs and sauce.

As the sauce simmered, I found out that heat loosens tomato skins, making them easy to remove. To me, it was an amazing discovery. My sauce turned out well with layers of flavor, courtesy of onions, green peppers, and celery leaves as well as multiple spices and Dad’s homegrown tomatoes. I used the sauce for two pans of lasagna. I was so happy when Dad asked for a second helping.

That success lead me to make other dishes with tomatoes. Corn-and-bean salsa. Fajitas. Tacos. Spaghetti. Bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwiches.

Dad last shopped for starter plants two years ago at Longfellow’s Garden Center in Centertown, Mo. He had recently turned 90, and he had been asking to go to Longfellow’s for a few weeks. He didn’t bother to hide his impatience. He always followed the philosophy that the sooner one planted tomatoes, the better. I’m ashamed to say that I put him off, but finally we went after church.

Ed with Tomatoes
My father, Ed Yorkgitis, tended a narrow plot outside his assisted-living apartment at Heisinger’s Assisted-Living Center in Jefferson City, Missouri. Nina Muenks, one of the activity directors, shot this photo to accompany a Summer 2012 newsletter article she wrote about Dad. Copies of the article appeared as part of two garden arrangements at Dad’s funeral.

In one of Longfellow’s greenhouses, he perched on the red seat attached to his walker and directed my husband, myself, and our two younger children, Tim and Elizabeth, to bring him plants. Tim was especially patient with him, bringing Dad numerous plants. “How about this one, Grandad?” Tim would say and hold out another possibility.

Finally, Dad selected three tomato plants and two pepper plants. Some of the tomato plants already had baby tomatoes. We also picked up some soil. At his home, he directed us where to plant them, and he quickly settled into a routine of watering, assessing, fertilizing, and watering. Never mind, that he could not carry his green watering can while using his walker. He would fill the can with water from the sink in his kitchenette and walk out the back door, holding onto furniture and/or walls. After tending his plants, he usually relaxed  outside in his two-seat glider with ivy-patterned cushions.

One day, in June 2013, I entered his senior-living center from a third-floor entrance and spotted Dad from an upper window. I stopped, momentarily, to look at him. I smiled. Dad was napping in his glider. Chances are, he had just finished watering and maybe fertilizing his plants.

That nap proved to be Dad’s last one in his glider. Later that day — after my visit with him — a staff member at the assisted-living center called me. Dad was on his way to the emergency room.

Dad battled a severe urinary tract infection, a touch of pneumonia, and fluctuating blood pressure, all conditions exacerbated by his Parkinson’s disease. After spending more than a week in the hospital, he was so weak that he could not walk, even with the help of his walker. Instead of returning to his apartment in assisted living, he had to go to a rehabilitation center affiliated with Heisinger’s.

During Dad’s hospital stay and his weeks in rehab, my family and I continued to tend his tomatoes. When his cherry tomatoes ripened, I brought him a bowlful to enjoy. When the bigger tomatoes were ready, I made him sandwiches and brought other dishes for him to enjoy. As his strength returned and he resumed walking, I thought he would soon be able to return to his assisted-living apartment. I was wrong.

His therapists deemed him a fall risk since he frequently abandoned his walker, just like he had done when he wanted to water his plants. Despite their efforts and my frequent reminders, Dad continued to forsake his walker — by the door of his room, outside bathroom stalls, and beside kitchen chairs. Eventually, my siblings and I realized the time had come to shop for a nursing home, and eventually, Dad settled into a private long-term nursing room at Oak Tree Villas.

By this time, we had moved all of Dad’s belonging out of his apartment at Heisinger’s, but we continued to water his tomatoes, using random containers and water from a public restroom. We usually returned home with at least one random plastic bag full of peppers and tomatoes. When a new resident moved into his apartment, she granted us permission to continue caring for the garden. We visited a few times each week, and between our visits, the maintenance men watered sporadically, and various people picked ripe tomatoes.

My family and I felt odd tending the tomatoes since Dad no longer lived there. We tried to keep a low profile, and we usually visited at 7:30 p.m. or 8 p.m., when most residents were retiring for the night. We tried to work as quickly as possible, but the plants had so much foliage that watering and picking all of the ripe tomatoes required at least a half hour of work.

ed in garden
I think that Dad couldn’t wait to come home and change into an old T-shirt and older pants so that he could check on the progress of his garden. Here, he is in the back yard of our home in Pittsburgh. Notice the many ripe tomatoes ready to be picked. Also note the monster evergreens; my parents planted these after first using them as Christmas trees.

“Mom, it’s sooo embarrassing,” Elizabeth would say with a groan. “What if we see someone?”

Despite my misgivings and my family’s complaints, I could not abandon those tomatoes. They continued to thrive, thanks to Dad’s early care, much as my siblings and I have thrived because of my parents’ nurturing. Those tomatoes were part of Dad’s legacy.

When Dad moved into his room at Oak Tree Villas, I planned to find a plot he could tend. As his health declined, though, I knew that would not happen. In early May 2014, Dad entered the hospital for the last time.

As he lay dying, I outlined a different plan. I hope he heard me.

“Thank you for teaching me  how to garden,” I told him. “Jim and I are going to plant some tomatoes and peppers, too.”

Dad died on May 17.

For his funeral, my siblings and I commissioned our florist in Pittsburgh to create two garden arrangements featuring tomatoes. The result? Bounteous displays of irises, azaleas, coreopsis, other flowers, and, of course, tomatoes. Copies of a Heisinger newsletter article about Dad’s gardening capped off the arrangements. After the funeral, relatives, friends and I took home the flowers that comprised the arrangements. Dad’s gardening legacy had sprouted branches.

This year, a few days after July 4th, my family and I picked our first tomatoes and peppers. Since then, we have picked some every few weeks. Of course, we don’t have anywhere near the amount of produce Dad would have had, but that’s okay. I’m hooked. Next year, maybe I’ll buy some fertilizer.

Love Doesn’t Need a Measuring Spoon

Mom measured most ingredients very carefully, using the flat edge of a knife to level off spices, flour, and leavening agents. After more than 50 years of use, my mother's measuring spoons are bent, discolored, and disconnected from each other. I still use them, however, and I treasure the connection with her.
Mom measured most ingredients very carefully, using the flat edge of a knife to level off spices, flour, and leavening agents. After more than 50 years of use, my mother’s measuring spoons are bent, discolored, and disconnected from each other. I still use them, however, and I treasure the connection with her.

For Mother’s Day, my daughter Elizabeth made a decadent chocolate pudding pie with a cookie crust. The recipe called for a teaspoon of vanilla. When the time came, did Elizabeth reach for the bottle of vanilla and a teaspoon? Nope. She just poured in what she thought was the right amount.

“Oh my,” I said to her. “Granny is probably turning over in her grave.”

My mother, Helen, usually measured ingredients carefully. She taught me to level off a cup of flour with the straight edge of a knife. She showed me how to pack a half cup of brown sugar so that it fell out of a measuring cup in a lump. For more than 50 years, she used her silver measuring spoons so frequently that they are now bent, discolored, and disconnected from each other.

Of course, Mom never needed to measure her most important ingredient. Neither do I, and neither does Elizabeth. I’m talking about love. The more, the better.

I sometimes prepare food haphazardly for my family, but I don't remember Mom ever doing that. She even cut sandwiches carefully, from corner to corner.  Mom's magnet now hangs on my refrigerator. Years ago, we sometimes joked about her secret ingredient, but I really do think that love helped her turn ordinary meals like tuna loaf into a special family meal. (She also owned a spice canister with a similar message. My sister and I think it's squirreled away in a storage box, awaiting excavation.)
I sometimes prepare food haphazardly for my family, but I don’t remember Mom ever doing that. She even cut sandwiches carefully, from corner to corner.
Mom’s magnet now hangs on my refrigerator. Years ago, we sometimes joked about her secret ingredient, but I really do think that love helped her turn ordinary meals like tuna loaf into a special family meal. (She also owned a spice canister with a similar message. My sister and I think it’s squirreled away in a storage box, awaiting excavation.)

Mom’s special ingredient made tasty meals even tastier. I especially liked her chicken paprika, a Hungarian dish also known as chicken paprikash. Just thinking about the pasta shells and tender chicken smothered in a paprika-flavored cream sauce makes my taste buds tingle. I have made it for my own family, and although it’s good, it doesn’t measure up to what my mother made.

When my parents moved to Jefferson City in 2007, I tried to make holidays special. A picnic on Labor Day with homemade potato salad and other fixings. Pork roast on New Year’s Day. A cake shaped like a Christmas tree for the holiday season.

My most poignant memory focuses on Mother’s Day 2009. That year, Mom was hospitalized a few days before Mother’s Day because of her heart condition. What kind of celebration could we have? She was in intensive care at St. Mary’s Hospital in Jefferson City.

Fortunately, on Mother’s Day, the ICU staff gave families more leeway with respect to the number of people in a room and the ages of children allowed. ICU rooms are bigger than typical hospital rooms, but even so, Mom’s room bulged with ten visitors, medical equipment, and everything we needed for our Mother’s Day luncheon.

I made one of my go-to meals: beef stroganoff in a slow cooker as well as a fresh loaf of bread in my breadmaker. My visiting siblings brought side dishes and desserts.

“We were a beehive of activity within the ICU,” my sister, Elaine, wrote when I asked for her memories of the day. “Having a party where you’d think there would be little to celebrate — and yet there was. We were laughing and carrying on, and Mom lay there like a queen, surrounded by life and love, at the center of life and love for all of us.”

I wish I remember more particulars about the day. The beef stroganoff turned out well, but I realize now that what we ate didn’t matter. We were just happy to have the ability to celebrate Mother’s Day with Mom, a.k.a. Granny.

My sister reminded me that Elizabeth floored us by how well she read a greeting card to Granny. At the time, she was only in first grade. She read slowly, loudly and clearly, like the best of church lectors. I don’t think she stumbled once.

We spent Mother's Day 2009 with my mother in the intensive care unit at St. Mary's Hospital. We used this tray table in her room to hold her cards and a flower arrangement my sister and I created using silk flowers. Mom and I had taken a flower-arranging class years before and enjoyed it very much. (Note the handle of my father's cane to the right of the tray table. At that time, my father used his cane in a cavalier manner, often placing it where it would do him no good. He lost it several times, so eventually we put our names and my phone number on it.)
We spent Mother’s Day 2009 with my mother in the intensive care unit at St. Mary’s Hospital. We used this tray table in her room to hold her cards and a flower arrangement my sister and I created using silk flowers. Mom and I had taken a flower-arranging class years before and enjoyed it very much. (Note the handle of my father’s cane to the right of the tray table. At that time, my father used his cane in a cavalier manner, often placing it where it would do him no good. He lost it several times, so eventually we put our names and my phone number on it.)

As Elizabeth read, the room grew quiet. We were spellbound. Granny looked occasionally at the card, but she focused on Elizabeth, her youngest grandchild. The moment seared itself into my memory bank. My mother and my little girl. Life doesn’t get any better than that.


	

In Honor of My Father’s Birthday

Dad liked the sweet and tangy taste of lemon desserts. For his 88th birthday, I made him this meringue pie. I didn't think the pie could handle a candle, so I brought one of my jar candles for him to blow out.
Dad liked the sweet and tangy taste of lemon desserts. For his 88th birthday, I made him this meringue pie. I didn’t think the pie could handle a candle, so I brought one of my jar candles for him to blow out. When I decided this month to visit the nursing home where he once lived, I brought homemade lemon bars.

2013-09-29 18.23.07
Dad enjoyed having a private room at Oak Tree Villas, where he lived from July 2013 to May 2014. He would have turned 92 on April 2nd of this year. He enjoyed company, so to honor his memory, my two younger children and I visited residents and served treats. We traveled from room to room, taking our cues from staff members and residents.

By Lisa Yorkgitis Nahach

LisaYorkgitisNahach@gmail.com

Holding a milk-glass basket filled with sweets, I knocked lightly on a partially open door at Oak Tree Villas in Jefferson City, Missouri. I waited for a moment and then nudged the door open a little bit more. A woman relaxing in a recliner opened her eyes. She had lush white hair, which framed her face in soft curls. I estimated her age at 85.

“Hello,” she said in a clear, welcoming voice.

“Hello,” I said. “My name is Lisa, and these are my children Elizabeth and Timothy. We brought you some treats. Would you like a brownie or a lemon bar?”

“A lemon bar, please,” she said.

My father probably would have selected a lemon bar, too. He loved the can’t-miss-it flavor of lemon, especially in sweets. When I arranged to commemorate Dad’s 92nd birthday earlier this month by visiting residents at Oak Tree and offering them a treat, I had no trouble deciding what to bring.

Lemon bars have long been a family favorite. Featuring a shortbread crust and a smooth, tangy lemon filling, the bars look very festive arranged in paper cupcake holders. I wasn’t sure if one pan would be enough, so an hour before show time, my daughter offered to make brownies. She’s a sweetie!

At the nursing home, the treats were a hit. “These lemon bars sure are good,” one woman called after we had left her room and gone into another. “I’m glad you like them,” I told her as we passed her sitting in a wheelchair in the doorway of her room.

Staff members at the nursing home served as our guides. One resident ate only pureed food, so she couldn’t eat sweets. Another woman was diabetic, so she, too, shouldn’t have any. If residents were sleeping soundly, we left a brownie, a lemon bar, or both on a side table. If a door was closed, we didn’t disturb the resident. Once inside a resident’s room, we took our cues from them as well as visiting friends or relatives.

“Thank you for stopping by. That was very nice of you,” said a male visitor.

One of the most receptive residents proved to be the lady with lush white hair who opened her eyes as we entered her room.

My mother collected both milk glass and baskets, and I treasure this milk-glass basket. It served as a conversation piece as well as a way to deliver sweets to residents at Oak Tree Villas. I shot this photo in the activity room at Oak Tree Villas.
My mother collected both milk glass and baskets, and I treasure this milk-glass basket. It served as a conversation piece as well as a way to deliver sweets to residents at Oak Tree Villas. I shot this photo in the activity room at Oak Tree Villas.

She invited us to sit down, and Tim and I each chose a chair. She didn’t have any more chairs, so she urged Elizabeth to sit in her wheelchair, on her hamper, or on her bed, which had a raised-edge mattress, like my father’s hospital bed used to have.

“It doesn’t look comfortable, but it is,” said the resident, who moved in after my father passed away.

My daughter used to have no trouble sitting on Granddad’s wheelchair or on his bed, but she turned shy on me and remained standing, giving the elderly resident a head-to-toe view of her lanky 5’10” self dressed in skinny jeans and a pink Under Armour  sweatshirt.

“You two must do something athletic,” the resident said.

When we told her that Tim and Elizabeth played basketball, she reminisced about how she, too, used to play that sport, except she and her friends didn’t have a gym. They played outside until the weather grew too cold.

Our conversation covered many other topics — the new clothes her mother made for Easter, her four grandsons, and the milk-glass basket I inherited from my mother and used to carry sweets. She admired the basket, called Elizabeth and me pretty, and declared that Tim was a handsome young man. Our new friend charmed us, that’s for sure.

In fact, I think her charming ways have helped her stay young at heart. My kids and I thought she was about 85, but we found out that she is more than 100 years old.

Dad would have been envious. I remember the awe in his voice when he spoke of centenarians. “See that woman?” he said one day a few years ago. “She just turned 100.”

He wasn’t able to live to a hundred, but he did lead a full, active life. Before Parkinson’s Disease reached its final stages, he stayed so busy with activities that I sometimes had to hunt him down when I went to visit. On a sparkling spring day in 2012, a few weeks after he turned 89, I found him at a gathering to celebrate April birthdays. The activities included a quiz about celebrities and other well-known figures who celebrated their birthdays in April. Dad knew so many answers that I thought to myself, “Wow! I hope I am as sharp as he is when I get to be his age.”

Happy Birthday, Dad. We miss you.

Lunch Today, Lunch Yesterday

Yes, I was my parents' daughter as this birthday card from them attests. I was in my early 20's here, and, of course, I had no idea that one day, I would be their caregiver. I also only a glimpse of the friendship I would form with both of them as we would age.  (On a side note, the dress I am wearing here was one my mother wore as a young woman. I loved that dress!  Made from a crinkly fabric in pale lilac, it had a tight bodice and a full skirt. When I wore it, I felt like a spring flower.)
I received this “DAUGHTER” card from my parents when I was 21 or 22. Of course, I had no idea that one day, I would be their caregiver. Pictures like this and memories of times I shared with them help me realize how fortunate I was to have Mom and Dad.

By Lisa Yorkgitis Nahach

LisaYorkgitisNahach@gmail.com

When two women with ash-blonde hair — most likely a mother and daughter — entered the dining area of Panera Bread Co., I noticed them immediately. Four years fell away, and I was once again my mother’s caregiver. I tried not to stare as the younger woman pushed the other’s wheelchair under a table and arranged it at the optimal angle for eating.

“Oh, your sandwich looks good,” she said to her dining companion, a frail, slightly hunched woman in her 70s or 80s wearing blue dangling earrings and a tasteful blue flowered outfit.

I did not hear what the older woman said, but I chuckled to myself when she showed the apple on her plate to the other woman. She seemed to wonder why she had it.

“Are you okay with that?” the younger woman asked. “They try to get you to eat healthy.”

As the two women continued to converse and eat, tears pricked my eyes. I envied the younger woman; I did, I did. Sure, her life probably had its ups and downs, but I could tell as she leaned toward the older woman and rested her hand lightly on her arm that she cherished their relationship.

I thought about approaching their table, but I didn’t know what to say. I was sure they wouldn’t want me blabbering about how I had lost my mother and missed her. Perhaps, I could have said that they seemed to have a lovely relationship, but I didn’t want to seem intrusive. In the end, I stayed put because no matter what I may or may not have said, I didn’t trust myself to remain dry eyed. Furthermore, I didn’t want to make them uncomfortable.

Observing them made me think, of course, about the many times I ate a meal or shared a snack with my parents. One memory stood out; I wanted to recapture it the most.

On that particular day, I drove my mother somewhere — most likely, to a doctor’s office — and afterward, I realized we both could use something to eat. It was too late for her to eat lunch at the nursing home, and besides, I wanted to prolong our time together. We both were in a good mood; it was warm outside but not uncomfortable; and neither of us had any other obligations. We decided to take advantage of the drive-through window at Burger King.

She ordered a regular hamburger. I don’t remember what I ordered, but I do know we shared some fries. We didn’t want to eat in a parking lot — too ordinary — so I drove to a small roadside park, the size of about two parking lots. Only one or two cars were there. It was quiet and peaceful.

For once, neither of us was fussing at the other. She wasn’t telling me, “Lisa, you wear that jacket so often. Is it your uniform?” Likewise, I didn’t feel the need to remind her about anything or question her about any aspect of her life. We were just two friends who also happened to be mother and daughter. I wish I could remember what we talked about, but I don’t think it was anything monumental. I remember feeling relaxed and happy. Mom and I enjoyed our sandwiches, our fries, and our time together.

Since Mom’s death four years ago, I have thought about that day often; in fact, sometimes when I need to calm down, I picture us together and try to recapture the peace that surrounded us. The imagery works. My breathing becomes less shallow, and the tension in my shoulders melts away. I relax. Once again, life becomes manageable.

Trip to Joplin and Carthage Showcased Steps in Grief Process

The spirit tree in Joplin symbolizes the resiliency of humankind.
The spirit tree in Joplin symbolizes the resiliency of humankind.

At the Precious Moments Chapel in Carthage, Mo., artist Sam Butcher painted this mural in a room dedicated to his son, Philip, who died in a car accident. The sign in heaven reads "Welcome home, Philip."
At the Precious Moments Chapel in Carthage, Mo., artist Sam Butcher painted this mural in a room dedicated to his son, Philip, who died in a car accident. The sign in heaven reads “Welcome home, Philip.”

By Lisa Yorkgitis Nahach

LisaYorkgitisNahach@gmail.com

When my husband, Jim, and I went to southwest Missouri recently to support our son’s basketball team and spend some time together, I had no idea that the trip would help me deal with my grief. One stop gave me an opportunity to vent my sorrow while another convinced me that I can rise above grief and rebuild my life. In one weekend, I experienced the spectrum of the grief process.

At Precious Moments Chapel in Carthage, Mo., I quickly realized I had stumbled upon a place where I could grieve without worrying about concealing my tears. The chapel features more than 80 murals by Sam Butcher, creator of the childlike Precious Moments figurines, and it urges visitors to take time for reflection. I especially appreciated the memorial room that Butcher created for his son Philip, who died as an adult in a 1990 highway accident. The mural in the room depicts heaven and a sign “Welcome Home, Philip” as well as an empty bed surrounded by Philip’s friends and family members.

After reading the posted information about Philip, I felt compelled to sit and study the mural more closely. I felt peaceful, like I do when church empties out and I can light a candle, kneel, pray, and reflect upon … well, anything. At the chapel, I thought not only about the parents I had lost but also the baby I had miscarried and the pain my parents endured when my sisters Mimi and Susan died from physical ailments at ages 47 and 39. Sure, I cried, but it was a cleansing, therapeutic cry. It felt good.

The chapel’s measures of comfort didn’t end with Philip’s memorial. In the next room, I found tributes to children and adults who had died in addition to several over-sized old-fashioned ledgers for people to write prayer intentions or to jot notes to relatives and friends who had died. Given a chance, I could have commemorated every relative and friend who had passed away. I settled for asking for prayers for my parents and for writing a note to my mother.

“Let’s go,” my husband urged. “This is depressing.”

“I don’t find it depressing,” I said. “It’s comforting.”

This trip didn’t mark our first trip to the chapel. We also visited  in the Summer of 2004 with our children, who were then 2, 6, and 9. We didn’t have much of an opportunity to read the plaques and learn about the circumstances surrounding the murals. Elizabeth, my youngest, identified with the Precious Moments statues adorning the grounds because they were about the same height as she was. She had limited speaking skills, but she had no trouble excitedly pointed at the statues and then at herself over and over again. She also enjoyed tossing her Cabbage Patch swimming doll in the fountains and trying to retrieve her. Repeatedly.

Needless, to say that experience differed drastically from my most recent trip.

Jim and I next went to the city of Joplin. Jim and I had been there the night before for one of my son’s basketball games, but it was dark. I did not get a clear picture of the lingering effects of the EF-5 tornado in May 2011 that killed more than 155 people, destroyed or damaged about 7,500 homes and affected about 550 businesses, according to Internet reports.

After driving down one block after another of leveled ground, I was amazed more people didn’t die. Foundations of former buildings and remnants of former parking lots gave the only hints in some blocks of civilization. It’s a flat area that looks even flatter now.

However, it’s heartening to see the new homes, new churches, new businesses and other buildings. The human spirit is resilient. We watched two basketball games in the new high school that’s still unfinished. Like many modern high schools, it looks more like a sprawling college campus than a school for teenagers. I especially liked the gymnasium during the game Saturday afternoon. Windows line the upper level of the gymnasium, and during the day, natural light meshes with electrical lighting to produce an almost mystical aura similar to what it’s like outside after a hard rain. Too bad, the boys from Jefferson City didn’t win their championship tournament game against Francis Howell High School from the St. Louis area.

We spent more time driving around Joplin than we had planned, and I was glad. I had set my heart on eating at a barbecue joint another parent had recommended, and we drove up and down 24th Street, then 20th Street, then 4th Street, and finally under recommendation by a clerk in a convenience store, we found Big R’s on 15th Street. Great hamburgers, curly fries, and pulled pork, not to mention awesome pie.

While driving in the tornado-affected area, Jim and I quickly noticed that the tornado had destroyed not only buildings but trees. The trees that remained looked barren, even for a winter’s day. One tree, in particular, stood out.

“Stop the car,” I told my husband. “I’ve got to get a closer look at that.”

Crooked ovals painted in vibrant colors adorned its trunk and limbs. It looked like a tree version of the Edvard Munch works called The Scream. I sensed the tree was screaming in the face of adversity. Maybe, it was screaming at Mother Nature. Perhaps, “Leave us alone!”  or “Huh, you think you’re so powerful. Just you wait!”

I later found out via the Internet that multiple artists worked on the piece, known as the spirit tree. Inspired by Native American art, it gives tribute to the residents of Joplin who have rebuilt their lives as well as to the many volunteers who have helped them. I felt that the tree epitomized the resiliency of mankind.

I was intrigued. If the residents of Joplin can resurrect their lives after the tornado, I can rebuild mine after enduring seven years as a caregiver and losing my parents. In the future, when I become upset, I will try to find renewed strength by thinking of those who overcame so much. Like the spirit tree, I can scream, too.

Daughter Appreciates Mother’s Sympathy after Miscarriage

My parents drove from Pittsburgh to Jefferson City in April 1995 to join us for Suzette's Christening. They managed to join us when we had our other two children baptized as well. I know they would have liked to have had another grandchild.
My parents drove from Pittsburgh to Jefferson City in April 1995 to join us for Suzette’s Christening. They managed to join us when we had our other two children baptized as well. I know they would have liked to have had another grandchild.

By Lisa Yorkgitis Nahach

Reach me at LisaYorkgitisNahach@gmail.com

My mother, Helen Yorkgitis, suffered from arthritis, diabetes, congestive heart failure, and other conditions. Despite her afflictions, however, she often exhibited an incredible capacity for sympathy.

One day in early 2009, I felt so overwhelmed by a recent sorrow that I had to share it with her. She was my mother, and I needed her. At her hospital bedside, I told her that I had had a miscarriage.

“Oh, Lisa,” she said. “I am so, so sorry.”

I cried then, and I am crying as I write this post. Up until that point, whenever I had told someone I suffered a miscarriage, he or she had brushed it off as if it mattered little. After all, I already had three healthy and beautiful children. Weren’t they enough?!

In spite of my mother’s illness, she showed more compassion than anyone else had, and I will be eternally grateful to her. She expressed her sorrow but did not mention my living children. She knew I was mourning another child — someone I already loved but never had the chance to meet. I didn’t want to hear about Suzie,Tim, or Liz even though I loved them as much as any mother loves her children.

Helen had not known about my pregnancy because I lost the baby very early. At my first doctor’s appointment in early December 2008, my obstetrician could not hear the baby’s heartbeat, and an ultrasound revealed that the baby’s growth did not correspond with the weeks of gestation. My baby, apparently, had died in the womb. I could have had the fetus removed surgically, but I decided to wait until I naturally miscarried. After all, I reasoned, maybe my doctor made a mistake. Maybe, my baby was still alive.

I felt the first cramps indicating the beginning of my miscarriage while walking to visit my mother. The cramps hurt so much that I had to grab onto a cement wall for support. The pain passed, and I saw Mom. At that time, I could not handle talking about what was going on, so I didn’t tell her then.

I miscarried a few days later while I was home alone. My husband had taken the kids shopping to use the gift cards they had received for Christmas. The date: Dec. 28, 2008.

My mother’s empathy stemmed, in part, from the miscarriage she experienced in the mid-1950s, but I like to think she would have been sympathetic even if she had not had a miscarriage, too.

At the time of her miscarriage, she and my father were living in a walk-up apartment in the Pittsburgh area with my oldest sibling, Susan. Like my miscarriage, Mom’s miscarriage happened within the first trimester. She wondered if all of the steps she climbed carrying baby Susan, laundry, and/or groceries hindered her pregnancy. She never found out, of course, just like I never found out what lead to my miscarriage.

As I write this, I am cooking a ham to accompany the turkey my sister-in-law is preparing for Thanksgiving Day dinner. I studded the ham with whole cloves, just like my mother taught me. My daughter Suzie is creating a glaze of orange juice, brown sugar, and mustard, just like my mother used to make.

Happy Thanksgiving, Mom. I miss you. Thank you for the many ways you showed your love.