Monday, October 7, 2013

A Bittersweet Anniversary

It has been quite a while since I blogged, which is my fault entirely. Most people know the famous quote of John Lennon's:  "Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans."  Part of the delay is due to getting my microbiology class together, which I am teaching on a Tuesday - Thursday schedule (plus my Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday laboratory sessions).  It's exhilarating to have more time for student input, discussion, and questions...but there is less material that I can shoehorn into each lecture.  Balance and my course goals become paramount.  So far, so good.  But it is definitely different from what I have done before.

I do want to write about the course, as well as other Matters Microbial™, and I will.

Even so, how lovely to see that I now have over 30,000 views in a bit over one year of blogging.  There are lots and lots of bloggers who pile up better statistics than I have.  But I have been pleasantly surprised by the number of people who do care to read what I write here, and I will continue to write about microbiology, education, and life (such as it is) in academia.  Many thanks to the people who do read this blog.

But today is a complicated day for me.  It is the first anniversary of my mother's death from complications associated with ovarian cancer.  I have written about my mother's struggles with Stage IIIC ovarian cancer here and here.  I have discussed a bit about my father's adjustment to life without my mother (as he negotiated his own very serious health issues) here.

The poet Rilke wrote that "Death is Large" (it is far more lyrical in his native German, as seen here).  But it remains true.  And everyone has complications, ups and downs, and the like in their family associations.  Everyone has things of which they are proud in their associations with others, and things of which they are, um, not so proud.  I'm decidedly no exception.

Do you know the Robert Frost quote about family?  It always made my mother chuckle at the dark humor:  "Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in."

The issue with the death of someone you know well (family or otherwise) is that you can't ever talk with them again---or the conversation is a bit one-sided at the very least.  You can't get questions that have vexed you answered.  You can't tell that person what you liked about their relationship with you, nor what you decidedly didn't like.  You cannot express gratitude or resentment. Your relationship with them is no longer "the present" or a bit of "the future;" your relationship has become "the past," like an emotional fossil deep in the strata that make up your life.

Death is indeed large.  And it leaves a very, very big hole in all concerned. 

At the same time, we go on.  We try to remember good times, and minimize (or at least temper) the bad.  My goal is to remember my mother with a smile, not with sadness.  Yes, there is much I did not know about my mother (she was intensely private), but there were many, many good things about my mother that I did know.  That is what should matter, I think.

So, with that in mind, some thoughts about my mother, Wanda Jean Martin (born Wanda Jean Burton), on the anniversary of her passing.  Here is a photograph of her (and my father, my sons Anson and Zachary, and yours truly) taken during the last time she felt pretty good, during a family visit for Thanksgiving 2011.

I thought it would be interesting to have my wife Jenny Quinn, and my sons Anson and Zachary, state a remembrance of my mother on this anniversary of her death.  Zachary has told me that he was worried he would forget about people, and I told him that the best way to remember was to write your memories down, and tell the storires to others. That way, the people you are missing live in, in the memories of others.

My wife Jenny Quinn writes:
Wanda would never fail to celebrate a birthday or anniversary. One particular birthday, she tried so hard to make it special for me. She got Mark to find out about the traditions in my own family and worked to reproduce them at her home. In particular, she made spaghetti and meatballs for dinner followed by my favorite---strawberry shortcake. In her unassuming  way, she explained that the shortcake recipe was new to her so she wasn't sure how well it would turn out.  What a treat it was to have shortcakes from scratch. I had only ever used Bisquick before. I'm not sure she believed the praise. She never did. The celebration ended with a rousing game of UNO as was common in our early visits down south. While the boys and I trash talked through "reverse" and "pick 4" cards, Wanda attracted no attention and quietly crushed us all.  

Here is a photograph of Jenny hugging my mother goodbye, the last time they were together (again, Thanksgiving in 2011).

All of what Jenny wrote made me smile.  My mother was indeed "psychologically Amish" and would never, ever brag.  She was always nervous around my very accomplished wife, but came to see that Jenny was a wonderful wife to yours truly, and a great mother to Anson and well as being a professor of mathematics, book author, and administrator. 

Oh, and the bit about UNO?  Absolutely true.  Mom would quietly clean our clocks, stingingly.  She would smile sweetly afterwards, and insist she was "just lucky," but between those humble ears was a pretty impressive computer.  Trust me on that.

My oldest son Anson wrote:
My best memory of a grandma Wanda (affectionately known as "G-ma") was during the time I last saw her, at brunch at BJ's in California. She was very nice to everyone and always told and retold those hilarious stories.  She retold the story about missing Dad when he went away to college because the house was too quiet. So Dad came home with a pan and spoon and started banging them together. She was always very nice to me and I am glad of that.
Here is a photograph of my mother chatting with Anson during that brunch.

It's not a perfect photo, no, but the conditions in the restaurant were not great (pretty dimly lit).  I love how I caught Anson and my mother laughing.  My mother hated her photograph taken, but I loved to see her laugh.  So here she is, laughing (and maybe over the story Anson told about the time I was walking around the house, banging on a pot with a big spoon, when she complained it was too quiet).  

My youngest son Zachary wrote this:

My favorite and sadly my only recent memory of Grandma Wanda is when I read "The Three Little Snow Bears" by Jan Brett to her when I was in second grade. I felt very proud reading that book to her. That day I didn't want to leave Grandma and Grandpa's house. That was about three years ago.

Now, I swear to you all, I didn't try to get any of my family to bring up specific issues.  But I have to tell you that I was a little surprised by Zachary's memory.  Because here is the incident that he describes, taken at that time.

If you look carefully, you can see that Zachary is indeed reading "The Three Snow Bears" to my mother.  I'm glad it had such an impression on Zachary.  My mother would be pleased.

And what about me?  What stories can I tell?  Oh, there are so many.  There are the stories that my father likes to tell about my mother and I, from when I was young.  Like the time, as a toddler, I was fixated on a small cold sore my mother had on her lip..and while she was napping, I snatched it off her face!

That's a funny memory, but I wouldn't necessary call it happy. More painful, maybe.

My mother loved to read, and she loved children.  I think she had a lovely voice, and I was always sorry I couldn't get her to record books on tape. 

All of my life, my mother encouraged me to read, and talked with me about books.  I well remember talking about Shakespeare with her in high school, and how she claimed not to be "smart enough" to understand Shakespeare (see that psychological Amishness?).  Yet I found some Shakespeare on her side table a couple of weeks later.  She enjoyed reading biographies, especially those that chronicled how people overcome difficulties; she found such tales inspirational.

For my mother, learning was paramount.  Oh, I don't mean getting a particular degree.  I distinctly remember, each and every month, going over "It Pays To Increase Your Word Power" from "Readers' Digest" with her.  It was my mother who first turned me loose in our little district library, and introduced me to the "children's librarian" Mrs. Kugler.  There I found a universe to explore, far away from the challenges of the schoolyard and trying to win peer approval.  I had Shakespeare, Huxley, Orwell, Poe, Twain, Heinlein, Dumas, Asimov, and Lawrence as my friends!  I thank my mother for that.

My mother had had a lot of sadness in her life.  I think it was with her almost always.  So it became my goal to make her laugh.  So when Zachary tries to make us all laugh here in Tacoma, I see echoes...even when Zachary (like me, when I was a child) would sometimes take it too far in pursuit of a laugh.  My mother's greatest fear was that her children would not find some form of job security...but also, she feared that we might become arrogant.  So I was taught to be humble and not to take credit where it was not due.  Perhaps too much so?  If so, it is a small sin a world of braggarts!

I do know how happy she was when I finally managed to earn tenure.  She actually cried and couldn't find the words.

As a child, I remember my mother making a special batch of cookies.  They were frosted, and sprinkled, and were generally the Cibola of Confections.  So when I came home from school, I ate one (and I was not supposed to).  I rearranged the cookies to minimize the appearance of having taken one.  Then I had two more, again rearranging the cookies.  Finally, I threw caution to the wind and ate them all (I was roughly Anson's age, with the same unfortunate appetite).  When my mother came home from work, I admitted what I had done.

"But why?" she asked me.  "Why eat them all, when you weren't supposed to touch any?"

I shrugged.  "I had one, Mom," I replied. "And they were just too good for me to stop."

She just shook her head.  And smiled, even though she didn't want to do so.

I have many more stories, happy memories, of life with and around my mother.  There were some times we did not get along, and many, many more times that we did.  But we never did not love one another.  And the Robert Frost quote is apt:  the family home is the one place you can rely on, no matter what.  Family is the most important thing, both of my parents insisted, as I grew up.  

I think the story about my mother that most resonates with me on this day is the arc that she followed dealing with her cancer.  I swore to her that I would be her advocate, and that I would never push her toward anything she did not wish to do in that journey.  So I spent a lot of time with my mother explaining cancer.  Explaining chemotherapy. Explaining the medical profession.  And I believe we became closer as a result of it.

I remember how frightened my mother was, with the initial (and quite dire) diagnosis.  I would get off the telephone with her, after hearing her fears and thoughts on her life, and just shake.  But I had to be strong, because my mother had been strong for me many times. 

As I have related from last year's post, I was there the night before she passed away.  We had a chance to talk a bit, that night, and I treasure those memories.  At the end of her life, my mother told me that she wasn't afraid.  "I'm tired of hurting," she told me.  "I'm not afraid any more."  She pat my hand, and said "Be a good boy," and then caught herself.  "No," she went on.  "Be a good man." 

My mother was in and out of things that last evening, due to the morphine that the hospice nurses were giving.  But there was something of the mother who raised me still there.  Most people don't know this, but mother had a droll and wicked sense of humor. Like all truly precious things, you had to pay attention to see it.

There wasn't much to say or do, that last sad and scary night.  My mother could not use the bathroom without the help of a hospice nurse (she continued to be mortified by this, and the pain that came along with it).  So my mother kept saying that she needed to use the bathroom.  I stroked her arm, and told her that she needed to wait until the hospice nurse arrived.  My father, ever the man of action, was pacing back and forth.  

"What's the matter?" I asked him.

"I need to find the notebook, and I don't know where it is," he muttered, referring to the notebook that listed my mother's morphine dose history.

My mother stirred.  "Oh, I know where that is," she murmured in a sleepy voice.

"Where?" asked my father.

"I'll tell you if you let me use the bathroom," she replied, turned her head toward me, and slowly winked.  

My mother, Wanda Jean Martin, died a year ago today, on October 7th, 2012. Though I am relieved that she is no longer in pain, I miss her very much. Thank you for reading about my mother.

And be sure---certain---that you tell the people you love and value how you feel about them.  Don't delay.


  1. Oh, I can imagine that final (almost wicked) wink. I am so glad that you were able to be there. We all miss you.

    1. Thank you, Jenny. I thought that Zach's choice was touching.

  2. A touching tribute on her "heavenly" anniversary, free of the earthly pain (onward to another plane?). Thank you for sharing and brightening my day with memories of a wonderful woman.

    1. Thank you, Phil. It was tough on my mother; she was nothing if not dignified, and any medical crisis takes away dignity first. I'm glad she kept her humor at the end of things. And yes, she is no longer in pain.

  3. I literally cried when I read this; but it was a good kind of crying. You said everything that could be said. All I wished for her was that her life had been happier.

    1. Oh, Jack. No need to cry. But it helps to write about the good things. I always urged Mom to do just that. There is always time to consider the bad things, at length. But we never take the time to honor the good memories. Thank you.

  4. Replies
    1. Dear Vinh: thank you for your kind comment, but no, he is not. He is in the hospital now and not doing well. Thank you for your concern.

  5. Martin, I was actually just reading up on a few of your posts and had a quick question about your blog. I was hoping you could email me back when you get the chance, thanks~


    1. Dear Emily: my first name is "Mark," but please don't give it a thought; people call me by my last name often (makes me think I am back in gym class!). I'm sorry if I don't remember you, but I don't believe I have an e-mail address for you. If you are someone I have met and do not recall, you have my apologies.


I am happy to hear your comments and suggestions. I hope to avoid spammage. We shall see how that works out!