August 5th: When Memories Remember You

Driving across the Indiana border into the country today, the Queen Anne’s lace and yellow coreopsis ran wild in the fields along the road.  The sun beamed into the car and a soft warm breeze blew in the window, opened just a crack to bring some summer air in.  When I wiped my face, I felt warm tears and wondered if the breeze made my eyes water.  With a tap to the automatic control, I closed the car window but the wetness still puddled in the corner of my eye.   Now that I’d noticed it, the tears seemed to slightly increase their pace.  The drive was pleasant and I had no reason to cry.

I’ve had enough mystical experiences to know that when the body overrides the mind, there is something I’ve missed that set off a physical reminder.  And then it hit me.  Of all the days of the year, August 5th is the one that started my journey into Anne on Fire, though I didn’t know it at the time.  On August 5th, 1996, my mother died after a six-month battle with liver cancer.

I glanced at the car clock and it showed 12:30, within an hour of the time my mother died on that August 5th morning, a morning much like today with the sun streaming in to the windows of her bedroom and the flowers blowing softly in the breeze outside.  Can the body really remember what the mind choses not to?

That morning I sat with the hospice worker and held my mother’s hand.  It had grown frail and bony like the rest of her body as the cancer withered her athletic frame.  Her breath rattled and I gave the morphine pump another squeeze to ease her pain.  When the hospice worker told me we were close to the end, she suggested I make a couple of telephone calls to let the family know.  I slipped out of the room and into the kitchen, dialing my aunt Mary — my mother’s only sibling.  I had begun to tell Aunt Mary the news when the hospice worker hurriedly appeared before me and whispered, “It’s time.”  I told Aunt Mary I’d call her back shortly and strided into the bedroom, grasping for my mother’s hand.  One breath.  Then another.  Then silence.  Her grip faded slowly from mine but I grasped even more tightly.

And then the most amazing thing happened  Her spirit seemed to separate from her body.  A transparent mirror image floated upward in excruciating slow motion.  I gasped loud enough to startled myself.  Then I realized my hands were hot, feeling intense heat in each one so much so that they began to tremble.  I watched immobile as the transparent image of my mother floated up out of the room.

She was gone and at the same time I knew she was with me.

Awe-struck I turned to the hospice worker, who quietly told me, “You have been given a gift from your mother.  Treasure it.”

“But what just happened.  Tell me?”

“Death is as precious a gift as life.  Not all of us are allowed to witness it.  Your mother gave you the gift of being with her for her journey.  We all choose when to die and who will be with us,” she said and I knew then this woman had witnessed many deaths and was a very special person to share this with me.

The rest of the day dissolved in a blur of activity.   Aunt Mary arrived as did my brother Jim and sisters, Kathleen and Susie.  Funeral people were called; arrangements began to be made.

Something unique had happened and I watched the activities unfold as if in a trance.  Something had changed in me as well.  I couldn’t put my finger on it but everything was different.  In the days and months and years that followed, I began to receive signs from my mother.  These were the signs that set me on the Anne on Fire journey.

More to come.

Eileen Gertrude Stark Gallagher.   1930-1996.  Rest in peace.

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Chance Encounters

May is a uniquely busy month for parents with school-age children.  As the school year ends, there are celebrations galore – from the athletic banquet to the spring concert, the father-daughter dance, the girl scout bridging ceremony and the end of the basketball travel team league.  At a certain point, any sane adult simply starts going through the motions.  My mental state was precisely there as I joined the line cascading around the corner for entry to the Spring Show, the annual song-fest where each of eight grades and kindergarten sings a couple of numbers.

Directly behind me in line stood R and her daughter M, the teenage girl burned in a home accident just weeks before.  Thick white burn tape provided a necklace around her neck and her arm was tightly bandaged in the same special tape.  Before I knew it, I had re-introduced myself to R and told them I too was burned as a child.  As I said it, I like itching myself.  It seemed to come from my stomach, which turned itself slightly at the thought.  As we talked, M shared, “I itch all the time.  It’s constant.”  I remembered the feeling well.  Insatiable itching that seemed to crawl inside with no good way to relieve it.  M also said that her burns were second degree, which immediately relieved me and I told her how well she would heal.  It’s the 3rd degree burns that leave the nasty scars — 2nd degree can heal with nary a reminder.

When they asked what happened to me, I told them about my burn accident, then gently rolled up my pant leg to show them a little of the scars.  “Yours seems so much worse than mine,” M said and I immediately felt bad that she focused on my injury when hers was so recent and raw, itching as it healed.  Her mother R looked and me, her eyes brimming with wet and said, “See M, look at Anne.  She’s successful and pretty.  We can make it through this.  It didn’t stop her.”

Like me, M didn’t like it when people stared at her.  We talked about “to tell” or not to tell strategies, to make eye contact or not to.  M seemed remarkably mature for a teenager.  She had a presence.

“M, it may not feel like it right now, but your burns are a gift.  Look how they help you teach other people.”  I believed it as I said it.  It would not have been the gift I’d chosen for myself, but I always felt right with it.

The line began to disperse as we entered the school gym for the Spring Show.  R hugged me tightly whispering, “thank you” as they wandered off to their places.

As the 4th graders began “Getting to Know You,” from the Lion King, I wondered:  How much more difficult are these burns for a parent? R was there when M’s leaned over the gas stove and her scarf caught fire.  She choked up as she told me about it.  They are replacing the stove with a smooth-topped electric model.  I understand.

Please. A Pleaser?

It wasn’t until I talked to my Aunt Mary that I fully understood how I’d become a pleaser, and I wasn’t really pleased about it.  Not that having a pleasing behavior is always a bad thing; it’s just that I’d never pieced together this aspect of myself in quite this way until I spoke with Aunt Mary.  Aunt Mary is my mom‘s only sister and since my mother’s death, seemed a ripe source of information about my accident.  Yet, the conversation was uncomfortable.  As we talked, it seemed to me that Aunt Mary was going out of her way to not blame my mother, since the accident did indeed occur on her watch.  As my mom ironed in the basement and my sister Susie played nearby, I snuck up to the kitchen to get some crackers, secreted away above the stove.  “Aunt Mary, the accident was my fault,” I told her.  “I knew what I was doing and remember doing it.  I have no one to blame but myself.”  Aunt Mary seemed taken aback and heartily disagreed.  “Annie,” she said with exasperation, “It was not your fault.  You were two years old.  How could it ever have been your fault.”  Her words hung in the air.   I thought about them for a long time. 

For the first time in my life, my perspective changed.  For the better part of my life, I felt guilty about the accident, believing that I had caused my own fate and was forever doomed to be responsible for it, which I must add, I always have been.  I rarely felt sorry for myself, fully rehabilitated myself and developed a persona of never letting other people down.  In my young mind, I reasoned that because no one talked about the accident, particularly my family, they knew what I had done and how stupid it had been.  I pledged to myself never to let my family down again…..and became a pleaser.  Straight A’s.  Editor of the school newspaper.  Athlete.  Generally good person.

Aunt Mary’s words had such power and made so much sense.  When I thought of my own children as two-year-olds, I’d marvel how the train was in motion, but the conductor was rarely home, which is to say, they didn’t know enough to be responsible for much.  Yet I didn’t give my small self the benefit of that doubt.  In fact, I’d never thought of it any other way than that it had been my fault.  In my mind’s eye, whether I’d created the memory from strands of conversation or whether I actually remembered it, I saw myself going up those basement stairs and heading for the stove.

The power of not talking about it meant that I had to give myself an answer however far-fetched it might be when I examined it as an adult.

How might my answer have changed if the event would have been processed this way as a child?  How might my behavior have changed?  These days my pleaser tendencies are not so noticeable and I like to think of myself squarely as a “B+”, hardly a type A anymore.  Age mellows me.  Exploration like this frees me.

Where Does Memory Come From?

My heart skipped an extra beat when I was talking to my sister Susie this holiday to wish her season’s greetings.  At the same time, I was thinking how to finesse a segue to her memories of the day I burned my leg, which I realized was probably impossible to do so subtly.  And so I just asked, “On another note, Susie I have this memory of you telling me that you smelled me burning and told mom to go upstairs and check on me.  Is that at all accurate?”  Susie, the consummate Ph.D. in psychology, paused as she would normally do to process the question and her response.  “I have to tell you Annie,” she said and hesitated a bit.  “I don’t remember a thing about that day.”  My mind swirled.  How could that be?  The story I long remembered was that she and I were playing downstairs in the basement.  Mom was with us just feet away, ironing and talking on the phone.  I saw that image clear as day.  How could Susie, who was a whole 18 months older than me, not have any recollection? 

“How old would I have been then,” she asked. 

“You would have been 3 and a half.  I was just a couple weeks shy of two.”

“Well, I guess that’s why I don’t remember anything.  I was so young.  I’m sorry.  Tell me what you remember.”  And so I did, my memory being much more vivid than what she knew or recalled, even though I know she was there with me that day.

Where exactly does memory come from?  How can we recollect something so clearly that someone else hasn’t registered?  It’s one of those mysteries that has to be accepted and is absolutely befuddling.  I so wanted confirmation of my memory and at the same time, know that when you embark on a journey to uncover the past, you simply have to accept whatever it is that you find.

What’s Your Fire?

The other night a friend, Kay, who has been reading this blog told me her own story. At 4, she was involved in an accident that left her back and neck burned with collateral damage to her ear. It had all the clear markings of a very bad burn. Yet she didn’t know the details of the accident. When she asks her dad, “What happened?”, she is referred to her mother. When she asks her mother, the story she’s told doesn’t add up. So she’s left in a quandary of sorts but has found a way to make peace with it. Being of the spiritual mindset, Kay believes everything happens for a reason and the resolution we DON’T find in this life carries with us to the next — call it karma, call it reincarnation, call it the law of cause-and-effect — we choose to let history repeat itself until we address it. That’s great motivation to explore the fires that rage within us and can counter the nagging downside risk, “What’s the worst thing I can find out?” What’s your fire?