We are inextricably linked to our parents on our birthdays: they brought us into the world and are our first teachers.
On this 66th birthday, I’m thinking about my Pa…the dice game 6-5-4, the double-six boxcars he loved to roll, and the life lessons he taught me.
How to be a good parent. He raised me to be independent, yet I knew I could always count on him to be a sounding board, a shoulder to cry on, or a soft place to land.
Be less judgmental and more accepting. Rather than passing judgment on something, he would keep an open mind and say, “Well, that’s different.”
Focus on the positive. Pa had had been through a lot in his life plus he had medical problems, which you never knew because his focus was on you and making the best of the situation.
Cherish friends and family, giving them your full attention. There was nothing more that Pa loved to do than sit and visit with family and friends.
Stay curious about people. Pa loved to meet new people and hear their stories. Being an introvert myself, I challenged myself to be more Pa-like during my 2020 pre-Pandemic Portland trip. The rich, memory-filled trip was one I’ll never forget.
It’s never a bad day for a drive. Pa loved to drive and said, “There’s always something new to see.” After he retired, he worked for car dealers and Enterprise, driving and shuttling clients while chatting them up. He racked up some serious miles, and I definitely get my sense of adventure and love of the open road from from him.
So my 6-5-4 take-away on this day is: 1) life is like a dice roll, you never what’s coming; 2) don’t be greedy and squander a decent score because the next roll might be worse; and 3) sometimes, when you least expect it, you roll boxcars and win the pot.
Mother’s Day has always been bittersweet for me. I became a mother to the daughter I always wanted at 30…and my mother passed three months later. She never got to see and hold her granddaughter, and I was motherless on my first Mother’s Day.
Mother/daughter relationships are complicated.
Five and a half weeks ago I had bicep and rotator cuff surgery. I had heard the recovery was difficult and I can definitely affirm that, but I was unprepared for how helpless I was to do routine tasks…and how much we take for granted having two functional hands.
Knowing I had surgery scheduled in a week, I started using my non-dominant hand to get used to doing daily tasks. I’m very right-handed so the awkwardness of brushing my teeth with my left hand continues to this day.
I reported to surgery at 5:30 AM where I had a pain block with anesthesia for my arthroscopic surgery. My daughter Daisy took me home just after Noon. She had arranged to work from home that first week and I was to recuperate in her big, beefy recliner. I was feeling no pain in my pain block fog so I went upstairs to do a couple of laps around the kitchen and dining room. Then I had a brilliant idea! I need a few things while I’m in the recliner so I’ll just put them in a bag and carry them downstairs with my left hand. Oh, and I need to eat something. Daisy heard the microwave door open and came rushing up the stairs.
“What are you doing Mom? I’m supposed to be getting things for you.”
In my pain block induced stupor, I looked at her indignantly and blurted, “I. Am. Independent. As. Fuck!”
“I’ll make you whatever you want. Please go sit down. You had surgery today.”
I took up my position on her recliner, she put a pillow under my legs, and tucked the blanket around me snug as a bug in a rug as my mom used to say. Not long afterward, she left the room to answer a phone call.
I started getting too warm so I tried kicking the pillow out from under the blanket. When that didn’t work, I scooted down a little and reached with my left hand to grab the pillow and push…and suddenly the reclined chair tipped forward and touched the floor, with the back end in the air. I couldn’t scoot up into it and I definitely couldn’t get out of it.
I was just getting ready to text Daisy to say, “I think I have an issue…” when she came back into the room to find me at the bottom of the topsy turvy recliner. She didn’t skip a beat.
“So how’s that independence working for you now, Mom?”
“Well, I may have been a little hasty after all.”
I spent the rest of that week in a pain coma, trying to get comfortable enough to sleep in my recliner. With my useless right arm hanging like a limp noodle, Daisy and I confronted personal care-taking that I hadn’t imagined. The helplessness I felt was mortifying. The second week was pain coma round two getting off the narcotics and alternating acetaminophen and and ibuprofen. With my elbow and right wrist immobilized, there was little I could do for myself. I needed help dressing, showering, removing bottle caps, and the smallest of tasks that I wouldn’t have thought twice about before the surgery.
Near the end of the second recovery week, the funeral of a beloved aunt, my Mother’s sister, was to take place. My Aunt June was the closest thing I had to a career mentor in the family who was a registered nurse. My Mother looked up to her older sister and one year for my birthday Mom gave me an engraved bent-handle nurse’s scissors hoping I would follow in her sister’s footsteps. When I was raising my daughter out of state, Aunt June kept me in contact with the family and always tried to visit us when she was nearby. When she took the train to see me in Michigan, I surprised her with a bus trip to Niagara Falls. When the bus arrived earlier than planned, we had just enough time to make the last Maid of the Mist tour if we ran. So we did, with fashionable Aunt June running in her platform heels.
The trip was one of my fondest memories and Aunt June meant the world to me. As the weekend of her memorial got closer, the realization that I may not be able to make it was crushing. I took it day by day and tried to regain some strength. My cousin Shane said he would help me so I could go and he picked up me, my suitcase, my ice machine, a cooler filled with more frozen bottles of water and ice packs, and off we went with his mom, my Aunt Myrt.
The weekend spent in the company of my Mother’s extended family and 14 cousins did more to help my healing than any amount of rest could. Their stabilizing presence in my life during my formative years when my mother was hospitalized helped make me the person I am today.
Daughters are always hardest on their mothers and I’ve spent my life trying to understand my Mother and myself as her daughter. Many times when growing up, the last thing we want to to be like our mothers. I’ve spent countless hours in thought, writing, and therapy about mother/daughter relationships. I wrote this poem in the late 1990s.
Healing My Mother Wounds
I will never be the mother my daughter needs me to be
Just as my Mother was not the mom I thought I needed.
I can only love, protect, and comfort her to the best of my ability
knowing that I'll somehow fall short of her expectations...
and that's okay, because as a daughter my greatest fear
was to become like my mother with her worrisome ways.
Until I became one.
Then I understood with crystal clarity...
She did the best she could.
Mother/daughter relationships are complicated.
The challenge is even greater when as a mother, you’ve always been in control even though your daughter is an adult. This recovery has been a humbling experience, but I’m thankful to have had Daisy’s loving help and guidance through it. I’m nearing the six week mark when I can start driving and become independent again. To say I’ve been a compliant patient is an overstatement, but I have learned to relinquish control in small doses.
On this Mother’s Day, I’m grateful to my Mother and all the Aunts and women in my life who have mothered me. And to my daughter, ten years ago when I came out, you tucked me under your wing like a mother hen. During this pandemic year we’ve survived break-ups, moves, and surgeries…and if we can get through this, we can get through anything. I am forever grateful that I am your mother, and I’m proud of the woman you’ve become.
Just after the 2020 New Year, my daughter and I opened a time capsule from 2000 we had created with her father. It was eerie how it had seemed like yesterday, yet two decades had elapsed since we had buried that duct tape-wrapped plastic tote on Y2K near a tree next to our A-frame cabin at Lake Nacimiento.
Little did we know when dropped mementos like the circa 2000 Sony phone, my published poems, and letters to ourselves in 20 years how drastically our lives would change six months later. I reflected on our two decade journey and was amazed at how different our lives were. My daughter suggested creating another time capsule for the next 20 years but I declined. Maybe I wasn’t sure I’d live another 20 years, or maybe I feared I would be inviting another seismic shift.
Both 2000 and 2020 involved major moves. Moves we never saw coming at the beginning of those years. Even if we had tried to guess, it would have been a blind shot in the dark. In the Summer of 2000, we moved to Michigan where I’d live for 20 years. In the Fall of 2020, I’d move back to North Dakota, the place of my birth, childhood, and teenage angst.
Each move happened quickly, without much warning or time to consider other options. In 2000 (the dot com gold-rush days), my ex was offered a “once in a lifetime opportunity” with stock options. With dreams of retiring and returning to California, we were all in…then 9/11 happened, our dreams turned to dust, and life was a scramble. This year with the pandemic, the ending of my third marriage, and my daughter’s move to North Dakota, my day job was the only thing keeping me in Michigan. When they gave approval to telework remotely, all systems were go and “Operation Move” was on.
I could never have guessed what was to come for the next 20 years in 2000, just as I couldn’t have guessed what would happen this year, much less the next 20. The pandemic complicated everything yet without it, I wouldn’t have been approved for remote telework.
Now, after 45 years of living away, I’m home…literally and figuratively.
My heart is in North Dakota today as they lay my Uncle Lester to rest at the Veteran’s Cemetary.
My mom’s youngest brother, his handsome military photo and those of his brothers in uniform graced a wall of honor at the home of my grandparents. It was that wall and their service that inspired me to join the military.
Rest in Peace Uncle Lester, and give Mom a hug from me. ❤️
Today marks the one year anniversary of my Father’s passing. It’s been a year of firsts in what I’ve come to call my grief hibernation. I lost my Mother when I was 30 but that was different. I lost her to mental illness long before she walked out of a North Dakota state hospital on a frigid February day and died of hypothermia.
Pa was my rock, my go-to guy through out-of-state moves, joining the military, marriages, a miscarriage, the birth of my daughter, divorces, coming out, and finally marrying my partner. My Father fought for and won custody of my brother and I during the era where children were assumed to be the mother’s responsibility, regardless of mental state.
“Guess what I did Pa?”
He was never quite sure what I would say next, and inevitably, he would respond, “You did what?!”
Whether it was joining the Marines, skydiving, signing up to run a marathon, or getting a promotion, he was always my biggest fan and cheerleader. This was the guy who water-skied in the Missouri River for 12 straight months without a wet suit so clearly I was my Father’s daughter.
My Pa had prepared for his passing by writing his own funeral service and obituary in 2008. After writing them, he called each person he listed as pallbearers, asked them permission to include them, and then proudly read them his newly written obituary. To say my father was a character is an understatement. He ended his obit with “P.S. If you want to put in that he loved to gamble at Prairie Knights you can, also he loved to dance in his younger days.”
My Father also planned for his granddaughter and I to deliver eulogies. How on earth would I be able to stand in front of an audience of friends and family and talk about his life without sounding like a blubbering fool?
I listened to the song “Dance With My Father” on repeat and boo-hoo’d my way through the days until “the day” arrived. I really wanted the eulogy to talk about what he meant to me as my Father, but I knew everyone in the room had lost someone very special to them, for so many different reasons. So this is the eulogy I wrote and read:
On behalf of the family, thank you all for coming to help us celebrate the life of our Father, Don D. Sinness (as he liked to call himself).
My Pa impacted and touched the lives of so many people and a stranger was a friend he just hadn’t met and talked to yet. He had a great sense of humor and he loved to make people laugh.
He had this uncanny ability to uplift a person’s spirit just by being present and listening. The next time he saw you, he’d focus on how you were and what was going on in your life, even though he himself was often fighting a medical battle.
My Pa had charm, character, and compassion. He was many things to so many people…a fatherly figure with support and advice, a shoulder to cry on when you needed it, a brother and uncle who loved his extended family, a compassionate ally to transgender co-worker, a fun dancing partner to kick up your heels with, the old Goat roper you loved to party and smoke cigars with, a Grandpa who loved to play 6-5-4 and made you feel like the center of his universe, a best bud you looked forward to catching up with every day, a fellow MDU retiree you could reminisce with, a guy you knew you could count on to do what he could to help if you were having trouble, a loving partner and caregiver to his wife of nearly 45 years.
To us, his wife, kids and grandkids, he was our Rock of Gibraltar and we will miss him terribly.
One of the last things Pa said to me was “It’s time for you to be a brave Marine now.” Pa, it sucks that you’re not here anymore but I’ve got this. Thanks for being my Pa.
Father. Grandfather. Rare Gem.
My Rock. Confidante.
Love You Much. Miss You Always.
Last weekend I spent five days with my extended family in North Dakota. I’m always relieved to come home to Michigan this time of year because the weather never seems quite as bad as the frozen, windy North Dakota prairie.
My Aunt is now the matriarch of the family and the sole survivor of her generation. As my cousins and I celebrated her 90th birthday, I wondered how it was possible we cousins had gotten so old. With a 15 year spread and the oldest cousin being in his mid-70s, I’m the only one who isn’t retired.
Seems like yesterday we were chasing after our kids, yet in the blink of an eye we’re the grandparents, the elders. When you’re raising your family, the days seem endless but the decades fly by all too quickly.
When I was 18, I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of North Dakota. Now reflecting on the many trips I’ve taken over the decades to return to my Dakota roots, I am the person I am because of those roots.