Unexpected Mercies

The house felt cold when we walked in.

I can’t even remember what night it was. Friday? Was it the Friday after my mother died?

I hadn’t been home in I don’t know how long. Two weeks? Three? One?

Time stood still. Or it had flowed past like a river at flood stage. I couldn’t tell you that either.

But the house was definitely cold.

Upstate New York, you know. Near winter. Frugal husband. Since I wasn’t home, he barely turned the heat on.

My kitchen door

My kitchen door

We came in the side door, the one that leads directly to the kitchen, the door with the windows that face the sunrise.

The girls fussed over the dog. Bud carried stuff into the coat room. But I just stood there, trying to remember this place. This was my home, but suddenly it all felt unfamiliar.

Yet familiar.

The cluttered table.

The minimal counter space.

The cold.

A mountain of mail had fallen over, an avalanche of Direct TV advertisements and credit card offers. I started picking through the pile, finding the mail that really mattered, when a small cream-colored envelope slipped out from under some of the non-essentials.

It was handwritten in beautiful script that I didn’t recognize. I didn’t recognize the return address either.

Come to think of it — it must have been just a day or two after my mother’s death, because I remember wondering that anyone could possibly have sent a condolence card so quickly.

I turned it over and over in my hands, admiring the way she wrote a cursive capital “Z” and the way her “L” gracefully curved under the rest of the word “locust” – my street name.

My mother had beautiful cursive handwriting, too. Her “E”s were most elegant.

“What’s that?” Bud asked, coming back in the room.

“I don’t know,” I replied honestly.

My hands were trembling as I slid my finger under the deckle edge of the envelope flap. They were downright shaking as I pulled the little card out.

It said simply, “Blessings in the midst of it all.” No signature.SCN_0009

A folded paper fell onto the table. Trembling hands struggled to unfold it. My eyes could barely focus to read it.

“Dear Sally,” the typewritten letter began. “With apologies for intruding at a time that I understand is awfully full with family responsibilities and is not easy for you, I’m writing to tell you that I’m praying for you…”

I went back and read that line over and over and over. Someone I didn’t know was praying for me.

I glanced up at the date on the letter — October 22. It was written before my mother had even gone into the hospital.

The rest of the words jumbled around on the page. She had known Stewart. She had been reading my blog. She was praying for my family. She signed it, but I didn’t recognize the name.

It wasn’t until I read and reread it in the following days that I began to understand. God had known what I would need long before I needed it.

On that cold night, in my cold kitchen, though, I was suddenly warmed.

He had strangers praying for me.

Mom’s Memorial Service

Several people have asked, so here’s what I said at my mother’s memorial service:


In recent months many have commented on my physical resemblance to my mother.

Do I look like Mom?

Do I look like Mom?

Over the last several years, my mother lost her capacity to communicate in meaningful ways, so, for the next few minutes, I’d like to pretend that I am my mother. I want to say some things that I think she might have wanted said on this occasion.

Speaking as Elinor:

More than anything, I want to say thank you —Thank you to the people of this community, this church, and my family.

Starting at Bassett

1955 — Starting at Bassett

When Don chose to come to Bassett Hospital for his internship and residency, I had no idea that this would be my home for over 50 years. When we came back here to settle in 1967, we put down roots that went deep and wide.

Thank you, Cooperstown, for the many ways I became a part of you and you became a part of me. Truly, I can’t remember all the clubs, organizations, and activities that I took part in, so I won’t even attempt to name them.

To my fellow contract bridge players, thank you for allowing me to continue with you as long as I did. As dementia robbed me of my capacity to remember cards and understand the game, I’m sure I was a lousy bridge partner, but you indulged me so kindly.

To the Presbyterian Church, thank you. Thank you for allowing me to serve in so many capacities. Thank you for the friendships, the rummage sales, the Vanderkamp retreats and the ice cream socials. Thank you, also, for the times when Alzheimer’s fogged my thinking and I arrived for a non-existent meeting; you graciously found something for me to do so that I still felt useful. Thank you, especially, to the choir — how I loved singing with you! A special thank you to those choir members who visited me in my hospital room during some of my last hours, and sang to me my favorite hymns.

Thank you to my family. I was blessed to be born into a strong family and then to marry into an equally strong one. Thank you to members of both those families who traveled to be here. Your presence today is the culmination of a long and wonderful relationship.


1978 — 25th anniversary

I have five lovely children. I’m proud of each one — Stewart, for his compassion; Donabeth, for her work with the church; Peter, for his teaching; and Sally and Jim for their work as parents.

Their spouses, here today — Gil, Diana, Bud, and Sharon —have been as supportive and loving to me and Don as our own children.

I have nine beautiful grandchildren —
Philip — Sorry about the Crossgates trip looking for the sweater vest
Owen — No charge
Sam — Thank you for your patience in waiting for “the others” to arrive for meals
Helen —Thank you for caring for me at home and again in the hospital during my last days
Jacob — I forgive you for turning off Final Jeopardy that time.
Karl — Thank you for helping me in Myrtle Beach when I was confused and going to the wrong room
Mary — I love that you love to sing like I did
Laurel — I wish you had known me in my better days
Ben —Thank you for singing and playing your guitar for me so sweetly in the hospital

wedding album - car


Lastly, to Don — I’m so glad we struck up a conversation when you were collecting IV bottles at the Deaconess. You are, and have always been, the love of my life. Thank you for the world travels we shared — Ethiopia, Kenya, Egypt, Scotland, Belize, Costa Rica, and Greece to name some. There is no one I would rather whale watch or collect monkey dung with than you. No one could ask for a more devoted, loving husband, faithfully visiting me twice a day at the nursing home. I may not have said your name, but I knew you and loved you, all the way to the end.



Here we are, in the town that loves baseball, and it seems fitting to close with a baseball quote from Lou Gehrig, even though he was a Yankee. In his final address he said, “I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth.”

Well, I consider myself the luckiest woman.

Thank you all for coming today.


I probably shouldn’t have gone back to swim practice as soon as I did, but I knew that Mondays were light on staff and heavy on kids. Besides, I thought it would do me good.

But one little swimmer kept telling me that I was doing it wrong and it bothered me.

“No, no, no,” he said, looking up at me, cheeks glinting with water, forehead squished down by his swim cap. It gave him a grouchy old man scowl.

“You doing it all wrong,” he said. “You don’t know how to do it.” And he pressed his lips into a pout.

“Julian, I’m giving other kids a turn to go first,” I tried to explain.

I go first,” he insisted. “You’re doing it wrong.”

It would serve no purpose to argue with a 6-year-old, so I kept going with the set, but I had lost my smile.

Maybe I never had it that day.

I felt adrift, unmoored, with no sense of time or joy. I was moving in a heavy fog since my mother’s death.

As I reflected on that swim practice, on the frustration I had felt toward Julian, and later on the irritation I felt toward my passel of 8- and 9-year-old boys, I thought, this is how old people get a reputation for being grumpy.

Those kids didn’t know that I had just lost my mother.

Nor should they have to make allowances for me.

They were just kids being kids.

Jacob -- It's hard to believe he could get on anybody's nerves.

Jacob — back in the nerve-jangling days

When my mother first started showing signs of Alzheimer’s, she had times of grumpiness. Things rattled her nerves — like the time that Jacob jangled the car keys on a glass tabletop. She blew up at him, and I watched him cower away, hands trembling, eyes wide. He was simply behaving like a little boy, fiddling around with whatever was at hand. But she was lost in a fog and couldn’t find her way out; that racket only added to her confusion..

I pulled Jacob aside later and told him that he hadn’t done anything wrong.

Another time he noticed the start of a Fucillo commercial and jumped up to turn off the television. Billy Fucillo has transformed “huge” into a two-syllable word: “huuuuuu-jah.” Our family finds it annoying. We turn him off. But this time, the commercial was right before Final Jeopardy. My mother was watching and she exploded. At Jacob.

“He’s a bad one,” she used to tell me when we played the guess-who-this-is game with photographs.

My mother’s Alzheimer brain had marked Jacob with a black spot.

I saw the way Julian looked at me at the swim meet yesterday. Big eyed. Wondering about this coach who didn’t clearly know what she was doing and wouldn’t listen to reason.

I thought about the way I would try to explain things to my children after unpleasant episodes with my mother. I wanted them to know that she wasn’t always like they saw her.

But Julian — will someone offer him explanation? Will his mother snuggle with him and say, “Maybe Coach has something hard going on in her life right now.”

And maybe that’s just it — maybe we all need Someone to settle our hackles after rude or disagreeable encounters.

Somehow we need to learn to hear God’s compassionate whisper in our ears — Maybe this person is going through something hard right now. Maybe tenderness and leniency are more in order. Peace, dear one. Be still.


Last Days

Having never sat by the bed of a dying person, I didn’t know what to expect.

The breath sounds, an awful gurgling accompanied by the heaving forward of her shoulders for every inspiration, will stay with me for a long time. They are not how I want to remember my mother.

The doctor had a name for it — air hunger. Naming it didn’t make it easier, though.

We didn’t want her to die alone and so we kept the long night vigils.

Helen and I stayed the first night together. I dozed with my hand resting on my mother’s arm. Helen sat across the bed and held her other hand.

Three generations of hands

Three generations of hands

Like a slow dance, her husband, her children and their spouses, and some grandchildren moved in and out of those chairs over the next few days. She always had a family member by her side. Sometimes we would pace the halls or sit in the lounge a few doors down. Sometimes we would visit the cafeteria and grab a cup of mediocre coffee. Sometimes we would head back to the house to catch a few hours of dreamless sleep.

The breathing, though, that breathing was such awful music for that awful dance.

The day before my mother died, the room was filled with a different kind of music.

My nephew brought his guitar to her bedside and we all sang to her.

Then, a choir of angels appeared in her room.

Oh, they looked remarkably like my mother’s friends from the church choir, but when they sang the room was filled with a new kind of music.

Great is Thy Faithfulness — it’s one of my mother’s favorite hymns. She opened her eyes when they started singing.

Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father,
There is no shadow of turning with Thee;
Thou changest not, Thy compassions, they fail not
As Thou hast been Thou forever wilt be…

It was so lovely to see her engaged one last time, air hunger and all.

Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow,
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside!



SCN_0004 (1)At my mother’s memorial service, my sister used Ecclesiastes 3 to go through the highlights of my mother’s 87 years.

My sister said,

There was a time to be born…
and a time to die…
A time to grow up on Magnolia Street…
A time to pursue her chosen career of nursing…
A time to capture the heart of a certain young medical student.

Then, there was this —

There was a time for weeping…
perhaps with her first cancer diagnosis.
And the second one.
And the third.
And the fourth.
But Cancer lost every battle against my mother – big time – for those difficult times for her blossomed into a time of significant personal ministry. Mom used her experiences as an opportunity to reach out to other cancer patients with a message of hope.

PICT1363In the 1950s, when she was pregnant with one of my older siblings, my mother had a malignant melanoma. The cancer was removed from her calf. The surgeon then took a skin graft from her thigh to cover her calf muscle. I found an old picture of my sister and my mother wearing dresses made from flour sacks; my mother’s scar from that first cancer is quite visible in it.

As a little girl, I can remember tracing the divot on my mother’s leg and asking her about it. “I had a bad spot,” she told me. “The doctor cut it out.”

The bad spot story made sense. I had watched her many times cut bad spots from fruits and vegetables.

Her scars were never hidden. I explained the “bad spot” to my friends when they asked. The skin graft only came up when she was in a swim suit, and, truly, nobody seemed to care, least of all my mother.

In December 1982, I got a letter from my mother. In it she told me that she had found a lump in her breast and would be going in for surgery. I showed the letter to my husband.

“You need to go home,” he said, so I did.

But my mother poo-pooed the whole thing. “I’ll be fine,” she told me.

And she was.

Just minus one breast after a full radical mastectomy, and radiation, and chemotherapy.

But I can remember coming home for visits in the next few years, and she would get a call from the hospital when another woman had a mastectomy. My mother would go sit with the newly de-breasted woman and offer words of encouragement.

“Some women don’t feel like as much of a woman without both their breasts,” she explained to me. “I tell them they are still whole.”

In fact, in a sermon she gave called “Quest for Health and Healing,” she said,

I felt that it was important to talk openly about cancer and be willing to talk with others who either need someone to talk with who understands, or to answer questions that might be bothering someone.

… In closing, I just want to say that cancer does not mean you’re going to die; that we all need people who care about us to help us deal with the living of our lives. … The greatest need of our time is for Koinonia, the call simply to be the church, to love one another, and to offer our lives for the sake of the world.

It was in that spirit that I began writing about my mother’s Alzheimer’s. The physical scars on her body which she never sought to hide showed me how she would have wanted us to address the brain plaques and tangles of Alzheimer’s. I think she would have said that we need to talk openly about dementia and be willing to talk with others who either need someone to talk with who understands, or to answer questions that might be bothering someone.

My mother faced life unafraid and unashamed.

I’d like to follow in her steps.


The Smiler — by Helen

~~ Words spoken my daughter, Helen, at my mother’s memorial service ~~

As many of you know, my grandmother suffered from Alzheimer’s – a uniquely cruel disease which led to progressive impairments in her cognitive functioning. Early on, she struggled with names. My mother, Sally, would often quiz her on the names of people in the room or familiar faces in photographs. When questioned about my name, she frequently called me Sally. While I was always flattered with this, one day she found another name for me.

Back row: Owen, Amanda, Philip, Sam, Jacob, Helen Front Row: Karl, Sally, Laurel, Bud, Mary

The Quiz Picture

“Do you know who that is?” My mother had asked her.

“Of course” She said with conviction, masking any potential uncertainty.

“Who is it?” My mom likes to prod.

She looked at me – “That’s the smiler.”

I couldn’t help but respond accordingly.

As I reflect back on the life and light of my grandmother, I have a few names for her.

The first is an attribute that resonates through the numerous cards of condolence. The more I considered it, the more I recognized her role as The Giver. Looking back, her generosity was apparent through numerous seemingly small, but, in the eyes of the child, grand and exciting gifts. The first was evident as soon as one entered her home – the large jar of spearmints in the coat room. Take one or two or five or ten or however many you could stuff in your pockets. It’s important to note, though, there were limitations as one of my little brothers found – somewhere around half the jar. Beyond mints, she gave me numerous small treasures – butterfly pins with sparkling color, stickers with birds and flowers which made any 7-year old’s drawing a thousand times more spectacular. In a less tangible sense, I look back now and see how generously she gave of her time – to this church which she loved so dearly (her choir and Sunday school, preparing for the ice cream social), her time devoted to other breast cancer survivors, volunteering with the American Cancer Society, her time working on the blood mobile. Grammie was a giver.

Next, I see her as The Teacher. She taught through precise instruction and strong examples. She taught me to pick carrots and pull weeds – to see more than just the surface leaves and get to the roots. She taught me to be resourceful and intentional – to use every sandwich bag until its last fiber could no longer hold, and how to make thanksgiving last well into the new year – turkey soup. She taught me to slow down cars with a shake of my fist – objectively, I hope I never have to do this, but the memory of her glaring down the speeding cars conveys a powerful message in strength and courage – the little guys standing up to the big guy, unafraid of showing her disapproval. These are only a few of the numerous lessons – many of which, I know, will continues to surface through memories and stories – all to reinforce her role as a teacher.

"The Smiler"

“The Smiler”

The final name is one I want to return to the sender – that of The Smiler. While she may have been conservative in the smiles she shared, each smile was a gift in it’s own way, reflecting her spirit, strong and beautiful. A powerful means of communication which even Alzheimer’s could not steal from her. When it became a struggle to formulate thoughts into words, she smiled. A smile to say – thank you. A smile to say – I remember. A smile to say – I love you, too.

Each smile was purposeful and genuine – a gift and a lesson. Something I will forever cherish, forever remember.


To separate yolk from white
My mother used half the shell
Like a little cup.

Sometimes she used a device
That safely nestled the yolk
While the white overflowed
Into bottomless crevasses
And ultimately into a waiting receptacle

I’ve seen chefs use their hands
Catching the egg contents
And sifting them between their fingers —
Gently —
Never breaking a yolk
As is my wont.

I rather think that God uses the hand method
Sifting body and spirit at the moment of death
In His mighty hand
So that one overflows to the waiting earth —
ashes to ashes
dust to dust —
And the other ascends