By Kim Carr:
My, oh my, oh my. Truthfully, I am not sure where to begin, or how to begin to write this. Thoughts have been scurrying around in my head like mice in the chicken house when you shine a flashlight after the sun goes down. Each time I sit down to my keyboard to try and formulate a cohesive thought, it scatters as if I might be rewarded with a chunk of cheese if I step away from my laptop. With my mom passing back in October, I find myself in a mental limbo. I know I should write—I want to write—I just haven’t been able to do it. This is my attempt to pull myself up by the bootstraps and get back to doing what I do. It is what my mom would want.
When you lose someone who is such a part of your life, of your everyday existence, it is like you need to learn how to breathe again. I find myself utilizing techniques that I learned back in middle school. For one season, I ran track for the Huskies at Hoech Junior High in the Ritenour School district. I started the season out as one of the fastest girls on the team. I was a sprinter and would often amuse myself with my speed, like the time my best friend Theresa and I were sitting outside laughing and joking: I have no idea why, but for some reason I felt compelled to smash a handful of potato chips on Theresa’s head. My intentions were to sprint away just far enough while laughing as she yelled obscenities at me. In reality, my plan didn’t go quite as expected. I stumbled trying to gain my footing, and Theresa threw a mean left hook that caught me square in the nose. Yes, yes, I deserved it. The burn went from my nose into my eyes as they flooded with tears. I blinked feverishly while squinting to keep the tears from rolling down my face. I could see four Theresas through my watery eyes, and not a one of them looked sorry that they had cold-cocked me. I learned a valuable lesson that day, many lessons in fact. One, don’t mess with your friends. Two, no matter how fast you are, there’s always someone faster, just their skills may be expressed in a different way than yours. Sometimes my nose still aches, probably my imagination, but it is a good reminder to be kind to people or you might catch a left hook from life itself. Not that I did anything to deserve it this time, but my mom’s death feels like a left hook.
So, when running track, our coach would not allow anyone to fall to the ground after a race, rolling around gasping for air showing fatigue. I never did that anyhow, not my style, even if I did feel like I was about to die after a race. We learned to stand tall, hands-on-hips, lips slightly apart as you took the hugest breath in and out to allow your body to recover. You gave your opponents a look like you were ready to race again—right now, let’s do it—all the while thinking, I don’t know if I am going to survive! My legs are like noodles, my lungs are on fire, I can’t breathe. In track, you could think all those things and you could feel them, but you didn’t show it; you didn’t show weakness. It isn’t that I think showing pain or hurt is weakness at this stage in my life; in fact, it makes many people stronger. But for me, unconsciously, I find myself at all hours of the day parting my lips and taking the hugest breath in, then exhaling for what seems like an eternity. I am not tired, I didn’t just run a race, my legs are not noodles, but I find my body needing to take a moment, a moment to recover from my loss.
Thoughts of falling to the ground and wailing around as if I might die do cross my mind, but my mom would probably be watching down on me wondering what the heck I was doing. Mom would want me to be strong, shake it off, and move on.
I can see how someone who has lost a loved one can easily be taken over by negative emotions. Should I be sad, mad, confused, guilty, shocked, overwhelmed, worried, empty? Emotions like these can be a dagger to your heart. I could eat myself alive with thoughts of “what ifs.” What if the doctors had done this? What if I had done that? What if we had gotten to a doctor earlier? What if I had paid closer attention to what was going on? This is not what my mom would want. I know this for a fact. She was a no-nonsense kind of mom. She never complained of anything that I can recall, not even when she was dying; she was just Mom, the mom that I have always loved and respected.
A part of me wants to be mad, mad at her doctors. It is mind boggling to me that one of our pets can pass away and we get a card in the mail from the vet’s office expressing their sympathy—not a mass-generated card or fill-in-the-blank email, “Dear _____, We are sorry to hear of the passing of your beloved (dog, cat, other) named _____.” No, I get a real card, hand addressed to me and signed by everyone at the office, real signatures, different color inks, different styles of handwriting, and like I said, on a real card. How is it that this can happen for my furry family member but not for my mom? I do find myself wanting to be mad about this. I know doctors have a ton of patients and lots more important things to do. I get this, but not one tiny bit of acknowledgement of my mom’s passing—not even a computer-generated email? You know someone in the office has to update their records, or maybe it’s someone in another state who’s just putting data into an online file. But I still think it would be nice if they then checked the box that activated the computer to send an automated sympathy of some type.
I’m not sure why this bothers me so, but if Fluffy and Fido can get an acknowledgement of sympathy for their passing, shouldn’t someone’s mom deserve the same? For this reason, if something ever happens and I need a doctor, please take me to my vet.
Not that I am for a shortage of cards; the cards, phone calls, messages, texts have poured in since my mom passed. It has been overwhelming. My heart hurts so much with the love that has been shown to her, myself, and my brother. I think I am just looking to be mad about something. After all, I just lost my mom and, honestly, I still can’t believe it.
It may seem odd to say this, but I feel lucky. I was with my mom when she passed away. She was here at home, and we knew it was inevitable. Mom actually passed away in the exact same spot her mom, my grandma, passed away. Both my mom and grandma were in hospice, which allowed for them to be at home with family during their final days and hours. Both times, a hospital bed was set up in the living room, the hub of all activity. From the bed, if my mom looked to her left, she could see out the front windows facing east. She could see the sunrise over the pond to start her day. If she looked to the right, she would see out the back windows facing west. From here, she could view the sunset over our back pasture where our cattle grazed in the evening. I’m guessing this is where I will die too if I’m lucky. Hopefully that will be a long time off. I’ve invested a lot of time, energy, and love into this farm. Dying here makes sense. I’m glad my mom and grandma got a chance to share this farm with me. Looking back, I have lived more of my life with my mom than not.
All but fifteen years of my life I have spent living with my mom or next door to her. That’s forty-three years. No wonder she is such a part of my life.
I really don’t think it matters how much time you have spent with someone or if you are related by blood or not. If you feel that person in your heart, they are a part of your life. No time or distance can change that, but I must allow time to heal that hole my mom has left, because that is what she would want, and it is what is necessary. Life is meant to be lived, and my goal is to have as much happiness in that life as possible.
Even though I have lost my mom, again, I feel lucky. I got a chance to say goodbye despite the fact that I held out hope to the end that a miracle would happen. For months I held fast to the belief that my mom would make it out of this; it would just be a setback that she could fight her way out of against a well-planted left hook from the Big C and we would get on with life. It deeply hurt to the core that things didn’t go as planned this time either. I can’t help but think how fortunate we were despite how things worked out.
My college roommate, Robin, wasn’t so lucky. Her husband, Dave, was the most outgoing person, a talented musician, a gifted artist, a maker of some of the finest guitars, and one of the funniest, most entertaining humans I’ve ever had the pleasure of calling my friend. Dave was always clowning around—not sure he ever took anything too serious except for his love for his wife.
One day, Dave wasn’t feeling all that great. Robin had an event to attend, a work-party of sorts. On normal occasions, Dave would have accompanied Robin. They liked getting out and doing things together. However, on this occasion, with Dave not feeling well, he opted to stay home and hang out on the couch watching some television—probably the Chiefs or Royals. The party went a little long, and Robin got a text from Dave asking when she would be headed home. She replied, "Soon." Dave texted back, “Bring me a 7UP, I’m dying.” If you knew Dave, he was always clowning around.
Who knew these would be some of Dave’s last words, one of his last texts, his last night?
Neither Robin nor Dave thought things were as serious as they turned out to be. When they finally decided to head to the Emergency Room in the middle of the night, they both thought Dave would get some antibiotics or other meds and be sent back home. Robin didn’t get the chance to settle in with the idea that she would be losing her husband. She had no idea that when they walked through those doors, she wouldn't get a chance to say goodbye as they wheeled him deeper into the hospital. She didn’t know she NEEDED to say goodbye. How would you? Twenty-four hours earlier, he was fine. Robin had no chance to process anything at all. Talk about a left hook. Robin got a double left hook and an uppercut topped off by a major sucker punch. Four years later, I still shake my head in disbelief; truly unbelievable. I think about all the folks who don’t get a chance at goodbye. I, at least, had this, and I am grateful.
For me, coming to grips with my mom’s passing reminds me a lot of my first time in a kayak. I had grown up canoeing, or at least I think I did. Don’t really remember my first time in a canoe, where or how I started, but I most certainly remember my first time kayaking. Being full of myself, I assumed kayaking was just like canoeing. You know what they say about assuming; and let's just clarify, it’s all about me and not about you in this case. Anyhow, my friend Jacque invited me on a kayaking trip around Finger Lakes in Columbia back in 2010. I had never kayaked, had never been to Finger Lakes, but I love an adventure and an opportunity to get out and explore. For Christmas, my brother had given my mom a little pocket digital camera. I had never shot with a digital camera, but the fact that it would fit in my pocket was really appealing to me. My mom had not yet used her new camera. In fact, I don’t recall my mom ever using a camera much, but I thought the kayaking trip would be an excellent time to try her camera out for her.
It was early spring—March, I think. It was chilly, and I was bundled up. As I recall, Jacque asked me a couple times if I was certain that I wanted to take my mom’s camera out on my first kayaking trip. When you are someone like myself, someone who gravitates toward learning things my own way (i.e., the hard way), listening to a voice of reason is not always a viable option. I am happy to report that I have gotten better about listening to others who are wiser in some matters than I. So, while preparing for launch with Jacque asking me yet again, “Are you sure you want to bring your mother's camera on your first kayaking trip?” I chuckled and said something to the effect of "Yes, I am certain." If I remember right, I think Jacque even offered me a sandwich baggie to put the camera in.
Oh, my goodness, I was an idiot.
We were ready; it was time to launch. I put my mom’s brand new, nifty little digital camera in my back right pocket for safe keeping as I walked the kayak out into the water with thoughts of capturing all these great images from atop the water. The next few seconds seemed like ten minutes. Sure, ten minutes isn’t a lot of time, but when you are submerged in freezing water with your mom’s brand-new digital camera in your back pocket, those few seconds that seemed like ten minutes become an eternity.
I don’t even know what really happened. I put a foot in the kayak, went to hop in, and the next thing I know I am flipped upside down. It was only a foot and a half or two of water, but it seemed like it was twenty feet. I'm not sure if it was the shock of the cold water or the thought of my mom’s camera in my back pocket that scared me the most. I couldn’t tell up from down and for what seemed like forever, I thrashed around like I was in the mouth of a great white being pulled down to the deepest depths of the ocean. Finally, I regained some common sense, which up to this point had totally failed me, and simply stood up. In what I can only imagine was something like a scene out of Rambo as I shot up out of the depths of Finger Lakes, water falling from my bulging muscles, I screamed some rebel yell, ripping the camera from my back pocket as if it were a giant anaconda that I must save as it is the last of its species, and I must save mankind. In my mind, it was something like that. Jacque may have a different account, but perhaps she was laughing too hard to recall the exact happenings as they unfolded before her.
Point is, I learned another valuable lesson that day. I fried my mom’s camera, I froze the first hour or so of our float, and I had to figure out where to buy a new camera before I returned home. Ends up, I figured out kayaking quick. We had a great float, especially after I dried out some and warmed up. I learned it doesn’t hurt to listen to friends that have your best interest at heart. I would share some pics of my first kayaking trip, but somebody fried the camera . . . hmmm. As a result of this little adventure, I ended up buying my mom a little pocket digital Fuji-XP camera for $108. It was waterproof, dustproof, and shockproof—all the things I needed for it to survive me. Funny thing is, I don’t think my mom ever took a picture with it; she left the picture-taking to me. That first little digital camera was what I took my most well-known photo with: the pic of Sophia, the smiling donkey. There are lots of fond memories from that trip and how it has affected my life as a whole, for the positive.
As a kid, my mom raised my brother and me on tips. For the first twenty years or so of our lives, mom was a waitress. I didn’t know we didn’t have money. We had everything we needed, and again, my mom never complained about anything. I didn’t know until much, much later that my mom made a dollar something per hour; the rest was tips. I do know family helped from time to time when needed. My mom was the type of waitress that folks would stand in line an hour waiting for a table to open on her station. She worked several years at Vincent’s Restaurant in Florissant. Mom knew her regular customers by name, their favorite drink, how they liked their steak, their spouse and children’s names, probably their dog’s name too, where they were going on vacation, and most likely their last golf score or their favorite store to shop at. That’s how she was, and her customers loved her for it. She also knew how to carry a full tray of food on one hand with a coffee pot in the other while wearing heels. The more and more our society changes and getting good service or even a friendly face becomes rare, the more and more I appreciate what my mom did for so many years to put food on the table for my brother and me.
One of the perks of having a mom that works at an upscale restaurant is that we got to eat there on occasion for free or super cheap. I grew up eating steak and lobster not knowing what a treat it really was. Still to this day, it’s one of my favorite meals, but I have a much greater appreciation for it now than I did then. Back then, you ate your meal on a white linen tablecloth with melted butter over a candle to keep it hot. I miss that. Probably the only time in life I didn’t mind fancy. Trust me though, I will never turn down a good steak and lobster meal even when I am eating it served on a TV tray, and my butter is in a coffee cup heated in the microwave. Every time I eat a good meal, I am reminded of my mom and the fond memories of eating out as a kid.
We had a favorite little restaurant that we would visit back in the seventies. I don’t know what the name of the restaurant was, but we called it the Tooth Fairy. I always got spaghetti and meatballs when we ate there. The meatballs were HUGE. It was so good. One time my brother, Mike, lost his tooth while we were there eating. Most likely he was playing around with it, and it fell behind the booth somewhere. We were regulars there, and the waitress knew us well. She was kind to us like my mom was to her customers; our waitress made us feel special. Upon learning that my brother had lost his tooth, the waitress went straight to work tearing that booth apart. She and mom turned that booth upside down in search of my brother’s tooth. Cushions out, booth moved away from the wall, table scooted out of the way . . . they didn’t stop until they found my brother’s tooth, hence the name Tooth Fairy. You know how it is as a kid: loosing that tooth is a big deal, then to actually LOSE THAT TOOTH, well, needless to say, we were all relieved and delighted when my brother’s tooth was recovered so he could put it under his pillow that night in exchange for a quarter. I have yet to find a restaurant with spaghetti as good as they had at the Tooth Fairy. Maybe seeing my mom and the waitress as superheroes who saved the day ruined all other spaghettis for me. How could any other compare?
My mom was a superhero that day, like she was everyday, really. I think that’s just how moms are, and dads too. They are unsung superheroes. Of course, I didn’t see her that way, I just saw her as Mom, my mom. My mom was the kind of mom who always had my back, whether I realized it or not.
As for being my biggest cheerleader, this fall I only did a handful of art shows, I cannot tell you the number of people who stopped to ask about my mom. They were not aware that she had passed; they only knew of the joy and kindness she shared. When I first started out selling my note cards from the back of my pick-up truck at the farmers market, my mom and grandma would come along with me. I was also the Market Master, so when away from my booth doing Market Master tasks, mom and grandma would sell my cards and farm-fresh eggs for me. My grandma also sold her bag holders from which she donated money to local animal shelters. There are a lot of fond memories from my early days breaking into the art world.
Slowly I started showing at other events: craft fairs or small art shows. One of the things I noticed was that all the artists had nice director chairs to sit in. Shows can be six, eight, ten, and even twelve hours long. A good chair is a must. Having a friend with an embroidery machine, I had a mule head stitched on the back of my chair along with, “Kim Carr Photography.” Now I was in the big league! Since my mom was attending so many shows with me, it was only proper that she have her own chair too. On her chair she wanted “Kim’s Mom” stitched on the back. She said that was how she would always introduce herself—as Kim’s Mom—and trust me, that is how most folks came to know her at the shows. I had her name stitched on the chair, but her favorite part was being known as Kim’s Mom. She would also fill out her name tag this way: Kim’s Mom “Jo.” We had some good laughs about that, and people took notice. They came to know and love my mom. She was enthusiastic about selling my art, knew every card and print by title, could tell you where I took the picture and the story behind it. My mom was a much better salesperson of my art than I was. I can see now that she put the same energy into me and my work as she did working as a waitress.
Being my mom was her job, and she took it seriously. The wonderful thing about love and kindness is that it is meant to be given away. She did this generously without thought; it was just a part of who she was. Undoubtedly, she was more than just my mom, she is just as well-loved by my brother, other family, and friends. The impact she made just by being her will live on.
At times, a part of me would love to walk out into the middle of our pasture and scream at the top of my lungs. I can envision crows and black tar spewing from my mouth, filling the air around me until I am choking so hard that I can no longer breathe. But when I take time to take that deep breath like I did when I ran track, I find myself being centered and grounded.
Since my mom's passing, there have been little signs that make me catch my breath, tug at my heart, and make the corners of my mouth turn into a smile. Just a few days after my mom’s passing, I was in the kitchen hand washing a few dishes. A small bubble about the size of a marble took flight. I had to stop and watch it as it stayed right there floating in front of me. As it started to drift toward the ground, it would suddenly float back up to safety. I’ve never seen a bubble just hang around in the air like that. It was simply magical. Since then, other curiosities have occurred, like the appearance of a white feather on the kitchen windowsill. Sure, I have a chicken that lives in the house, so feathers are not uncommon, but this is a small white feather, and Dandelion is a brown chicken. Friends gave me a chrysocolla heart-shaped stone. In Native American culture, it is said to hold gifts of peace, tranquility, and unconditional love. I have placed their lovely gift on the windowsill and put the feather with it. I can’t even count how many times a day I stand at that sink, just like my mom did. The stone and feather do bring peace, tranquility, and the feeling of unconditional love each time they catch my eye.
Other signs have caused me to pause and feel connected to my mom beyond space and time. Two and a half weeks after my mom’s passing, Jacque once again suggested a float trip at Finger Lakes. The thought of getting out into nature, on the water, seemed like the perfect medicine for what ails a hurting heart. This time I managed to get in my kayak and launch like a pro, which made me very happy as, once again, it was a cold day. Staying dry was golden. Not long into our float, I noticed something on the water. While there were many autumn-colored leaves drifting along, this had more color. I floated up alongside a Monarch butterfly that was on its side and struggling. I gently placed my paddle underneath the butterfly and lifted it from the water. It looked to be in decent enough shape; it was just wet and worn out. I placed it on my kayak in front of me so I could keep an eye on it as it rested and recovered. I don’t know what the odds are of finding a Monarch in the water and being able to rescue it, but it gave me joy in being able to do so. It seemed like a sign from above. To me, it felt like a visit from my mom. Definitely a special day. It gave me great pleasure being able to safely return the Monarch to dry land later in the day. Really can’t explain how good this made me feel. I was at peace.
Little moments like this help to heal from the inside out.
Earlier this month, I went outside after dark, which in itself is really not all that uncommon; I live on a farm, and farming is 24/7. Most nights are peaceful, but on occasion I’ve had to round up cattle, batten down the hatches, or investigate what the dogs were riled up about. On this night, I was headed out to take care of something, and I stopped short when I noticed an owl sitting on the driveway post. I wasn’t twenty feet from it. I was surprised that it hadn’t taken flight when I came out of the house. I was shocked that it remained on the post as I stood so close. The owl showed no fear, and it just sat and looked at me, swiveling its head back and forth. Outside, under the night sky, me, and the owl . . . well, once again, it seemed like a magical moment and a sign that my mom is around in spirit. I don’t really know, but it brings comfort and calmness that I can appreciate with an open mind and a healing heart.
I think of how loved my mom is and the happiness she shared in just by being her. I could say that my mom was the best mom ever or that my mom was better than your mom, but that’s just not so. There are tons of wonderful moms out there, and I was lucky to have one of them. Without a doubt, I can say my mom was the BEST MOM for me. While she was just Mom to me, I think somewhere in her ordinary, lays her extraordinary. It really is just as simple as that; my mom was extraordinary at being my mom. For that I will always be grateful. I will breathe in sunshine and fresh air, live my life to the fullest.
My life is a simple life, it is a good life. My mom made that possible. I am a reflection of her. My brother is a reflection of her. Her grandkids and great grandkids are a reflection of all that she was. Mom would be proud. She was proud of us; this I know. Now it is up to me to take that deep breath and continue being just me, because within the ordinary me, lies the extraordinary me. I learned that from my extraordinary mom.
Kim Carr is a photographer and mid-Missouri hobby farmer who has combined her love for the country life with that of natural-light photography. Her work reflects my commitment to sustainable agriculture and the humane treatment of all animals. To learn more about Kim, read her interview with Elizabeth Gracen here.
To purchase Kim's photography, visit her website: kimcarrphotography.com