Mirror Mirror: Help me see how I want to be #dignity Part 1 of 3

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“I don’t believe dignity is something you’re born with…” 

           Miriam Webster defines dignity as, “a way of appearing or behaving that suggests seriousness and self-control: the quality of being worthy of honor or respect”.  Dignity is described as a noun, not a verb; therefore, it’s not an action one takes, but a presence of being and, by description, not something you can possess by simple existence.  I’m not sure dignity is something I was keenly aware of until a very mature age of my life and, my recollection is becoming aware of the genuine ability to have dignity by observation.

There has been one common thread amongst the people in my life who I have observed and believed to possess dignity.  Dignity, being a noun and not a verb, dignity does not require work to maintain, but persons possessing it have more of an inner spirit that drives them to respond to the world and those around them in a particular way.  There is an ease in decisions of consciousness, decisiveness, convictions, and those dignified individuals whom I have known of during my life seem to face situations of existence that would terrify most, with a calmness of soul, and a serenity and an acceptance of fate as the universe would have without questioning the Almighty with “Why?” as some people would.

This is my reflection of three such wonderful souls.

“When I realized what genuine dignity looked like, I thought Wow…”

            My first real glimpse of utter dignity that I recall was the last few weeks of my mother’s life.  She was 80 years old, had survived stage I lung cancer ten years earlier, as well as a multitude of other geriatric health issues, only to then find herself with a late diagnosis of terminal liver cancer.  The rather radical surgery removing a portion of Mom’s left lung saving her life ten years prior required a long hard recovery.  At that time, Mom said she would never undergo such treatment again, and especially when she felt perfectly fine before they cut her open.  It is my belief now, that her conviction some ten years earlier, was the reason why we found ourselves with this late diagnosis.  In other words, my mother was sick for along time and simply ignored the warnings until she became hospital bound, and a diagnosis was made much too late.  She didn’t wish to be diagnosed and feel obligated to undergo treatment she didn’t want to have.

To say cancer defined my Mom would not be telling the whole story.  The truth is my Mom was a lifelong survivor of many trials some would consider a reason to give up.  She was the youngest of three children in a family with an alcoholic father and mother with epilepsy when there was little treatment available.  Mom grew up with tremendous responsibility in a chaotic house with a mother she felt hated her.  Mom loved her father a lot, but he was apparently a mess and died young, and Mom eventually brought my grandmother to live with our family until she passed.   Not having much of an example, Mom married an alcoholic, and while they did their best with three children, history repeated, and Mom was left with most of the responsibility for our family.

Through all of her trials and tribulations, Mom was a strong woman, who was determined to appear like she had it all together, even when the world was crumbling around her.  I can only speak for myself when I say that her cavalier attitude was often off putting to me when I wanted her to crawl in the pot of pity with me when I was feeling bad about what life wasn’t giving me.  For Mom, it was all about appearances.  Don’t show the world your weaknesses, and they won’t be able to pick on them.  She never complained about being sick, even going to work with a turtleneck on to hide the fact that she had caught the mumps from me!  Mom carried this will and grace to her grave.  I really wish I had learned to appreciate it more while she was still alive.

Fast forward to numerous admissions with complicated illnesses.  Even then Mom went to the hospital by ambulance.  She never wanted to go to the doctors or a hospital.  As my brothers and I surrounded her to comfort her during delivery of the news of her liver cancer, Mom looked at all of us wide-eyed and calm.  We looked at Mom, waiting for the moment she would break down.  There were no tears.  Mom had been told there was no treatment that she could tolerate at that point.  She had anywhere from weeks to months to live.  We’re all tearing up, and patting her and asking if she’s ok.  The silence in her glare was puzzling.  Then she calmly looked around at all of us, and God is my witness said, “Well did you think I was going to live for ever!  For God’s sake, I’m 80 f*****g years old!”  Needless to say, we all just sat there frozen in place, not knowing whether to laugh or cry for her.  I mean she was right.  Mom was 80 years old, she led a decent life, she had happy times and sad times, she was loved and adored by many, and the fact was, she was sick as hell.

A decision was made to move Mom to hospice care, as she was ready to stop all life sustaining medications.  She starting refusing food almost right away and within days she slipped into a peaceful coma, drifting out of our lives on the tenth day.  Mom was in a beautiful room, surrounded by cards, notes and flowers from all the people who loved her.  This was her choice, her terms, she was ready to go and, she even refused morphine for comfort claiming she had no pain.  I remember sitting in Mom’s room the day before she left us, and thinking that I only hope if I had to make the choice she did, that I could leave the world so peacefully.  My mother was many things good in her life and, yes, a few bad things too; however, I can say without hesitation, she had dignity and I am so blessed that I got to live in the presence of it, grow from it, and admire it.

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Why Peyton Manning and my Mom are my heros

On the surface, Peyton Manning and my mother are two people who would seem to have absolutely nothing in common, right?  Well in the very complicated world that is my mind, the answer is not as simple as right or wrong!  The truth is they are quite different individuals, and represent a lot of separate qualities, which I admire.  However, they share one very significant quality that I have grown to admire more and more as life goes on.  

Of course as I compare the quality in Peyton Manning, to my mother, one must understand that I rate my opinion of Peyton on what I have come to know of him in the public eye.  Please understand that I have more than a passing fascination with Peyton’s athletic ability.  As a die-hard University of Tennessee football fan, born with orange blood, I followed Peyton’s explosion into the sports world from his freshman year at UT, until the present.  Interviews, articles, appearances, commercials, books, you name it.  It is my Ernst opinion that you can from time to time fake to the public what you want them to see, but when you consistently present a genuine modesty, humility, respect to your fellow athletes, and a generosity of spirit at all times notable, then you are the real deal.  Although Peyton broke records, performed flawlessly on the field, and rather than go to the NFL early, stayed behind for his last year of eligibility to finish his Masters degree, which he probably would never utilize in terms of the normal working class world.  I believe that was about bettering himself, becoming the best person he could be in the circumstance he was living.  He was offered a full college education, and he was going to get that education.

Like Peyton, my mother was a person who I came to understand, always took the most from every situation in life that she existed in.  What I mean to portray about my mother, if she had gone to college, she would have finished.  Mom was an almost compulsive over achiever, always the leader of the group, planning things, adding the extra flair to the party, excelling at her job, taking on extra responsibilities, becoming the best cook, the best seamstress, the best crotchetier, etc…She lived to get her recipe published in the Zephyrhills newspaper as the favorite of the week, win the costumer contest or to see her name on the bulletin board at Beal’s for closing the most credit applications.  Mom’s drive to be at the top of the heap made her someone you didn’t want to play Wii bowling with!  Even in casual competitive events with family or friends, she wanted to win!  As I matured and grew up, I learned that much of this behavior was Mom’s desire to seek approval from those in her life; she felt she had to constantly prove herself, constantly earn your love.  She once told me that she never felt much love from her mother who paid her no mind compared to her brothers, and that her father’s alcoholism consumed him and left him less than compassionate.  Despite her seemingly dismal upbringing, my mother was someone who always had a smile for anyone she encountered, and you would think she was the happiest person in the world.  Since we create our own reality, I think she was happy, and/or knew how to get herself to the happy place. 

This leads me to the point where I notice the “shared quality” that I admire so much in Peyton Manning, and my mother.  Still doesn’t make sense?  Ok, then I will explain myself.  During Peyton Manning’s career from college to the pros, anyone who has followed his career knows he has certainly had his setbacks and critics.  After a stunning college career, he lost the Heisman, failed to beat the Gators, and left UT just one year prior to them winning the National Championship (although he did walk with some jewelry).  Critics, particularly those in the sunshine state ridiculed him, saying he was over, would never make it in the NFL, blah, blah, blah…did you ever see Peyton Manning so much as blink?  Express one moment of doubt?  Ever speak out to the negative comments?  Nope, he just focused on the positive and moved on with his career.  Seems the same is true to this day.  When he wins, he will point to the O-line and say couldn’t do it without them, or give his receivers the props, almost never does he take the credit he deserves for his hard work and dedication.  Further to this, no matter what his injury is or has been, he will just smile and say, “yeah it hurts, it’s an aggravation, but I’m hear, and I’m going to do my best today”.  Congratulations Broncos!  I hope you make the Superbowl this year!!  You got yourself a Hall of Famers, who apparently still isn’t done breaking records!

What can I say about my Mom, except she was exactly the same way!  I remember when I had the measles; my Mom caught them from me, which is kind of dangerous for adults.  Well Mom just put a turtleneck on to hide it, and went right on to work.  Never missed a day!  When Mom was first diagnosed with cancer, wasn’t even symptomatic, and she went in for the lobectomy, it was horrible!!  Having never given in to the smallest of colds, this was a shocker for her!  Then they messed up her spinal block, and apparently had no numbing, then had a pain pump that had never been unlocked!!  Three months later, it was like it never happened.   She literally never talked about the surgery, never talked about cancer, never seemed to worry about anything except going back to work!   To me, Mom was a complicated person.  But, Mom really had the outlook that I admire so much, “It might not be perfect, but I’m here!  And as long as I’m here, I’m going to make it the best it can be”.  I don’t believe that my Mom wasted one minute of her life.  I truly envied that about her, all the hobbies, friends, interests, and activities to occupy her time. 

I knew when the doctors finally diagnosed Mom’s end stage cancer some ten years later, that she wouldn’t live very long.  I wanted all of the children to be with her when the news came, you know, to give her strength.   We all stood there by her side, holding her hand, waiting for her to react.  Finally I asked her, “Mom, you ok?” She scanned all of us and said, “What are you all looking at?  I’m 80 fucking years old!  It’s not like I was going to live forever!!”  The doctors said Mom might live anywhere from 6 weeks to 6 months depending on her other health issues.  But that day, Mom just stopped eating, would just say how tired she was, wanted to sleep, and with the exception of a few days of lucidity, we pretty much lost her right then and there.  I really can’t recall the exact timeline, but I think she officially died about 10 days later at Hospice.  As you might imagine, despite being consumed with cancer, she accepted two doses of morphine, and that was it.  She basically just went to sleep.  When she could no longer say, “I’m here and I’m going to make the most of it!”  Mom left us with the most dignified exit I can imagine.  Yep……….hero.

My mother, my hero, my friend

Norma Dean Miller Wampler Shouse, a true Irish beauty and soul inside and out.   A woman I clearly hated at the age of 15, respected by the age of 25, admired at the ripe old age of 35, and deeply loved and lost to lung cancer at the age of 45.  Only those who are closest to me would ever fully understand, the depth of our wonderful, turbulent, and yet delightful relationship, unless I took the time to write about it!  I have sipped many cocktails with my closet friends while laughing, crying, screaming, and enjoying the relationship that was mine with my mother.  On more than one occasion my friends have inspired me to write about my life, saying that many would enjoy hearing our stories.  But more importantly, it is essential to me personally, that I memorialize all the details, because I have learned and grown so much through my relationship with my mother, who continually inspired me to be a better person one way or the other.  We each have our own journey in life, but it is sometimes with careful reflection that we find out how we became who we are. 

My mother took on many roles during my life, and I only truly understood her far too late I’m afraid.  When I say that I have learned and grown through my relationship with my mother, it is not to say it was always because I thought she represented the best example of character at all times in my life.  Don’t get me wrong, she cared deeply that my brothers and I got an education, learned manners, went to church, dressed properly, and presented ourselves respectfully in public.  That said, her temper frightened me as a child, and her complete inability to control her temper in a store, at McDonald’s, or even when dealing with a co-worker or neighbor who had “wronged” her (in her opinion), was unnerving.  If someone argued with her point of view over a price or refund, we kids would just tug at her shirt and beg to go to the car.  NOW, I understand that my mother was menopausal for many years during my formative years, and yeah well, now I sorta get it, but only a little bit, lol.  I swore as a child that I would NEVER embarrass my children like that in public!  See, an early lesson learned:  don’t totally embarrass your children in public, they will hate you for it.

There are so many stories that I have shared with my children, part of the inner me that resulted from events in my life with my mother.  The events of my life never changed, I just grew up, grew perspective, understood my mother, understood how she became the way she was, and most important, learned that she was probably one of the most generous loving and loved people that I will ever know.  Many of the things she did to me as a child that felt like torture, were her determination to turn the world into the most beautiful version of reality she could create.  Her entire life was spent doing things for others to make everyone’s life more beautiful, more fun, more stimulating, and she did things out of a deep desire to be loved and accepted.  When Mom came to live with me a few years before her death, many in my life would say, “I don’t know how you do it!”  Well it was because I had learned to see these beautiful things in my Mom, accept her for who she was, and finally to give her the deep respectful love she deserved.  Now……..I miss her everyday.  Damn you cancer!

There are many delightful stories to tell, about Mom, and others.  I hope you enjoy reading about my journey.