Pilgrimage Back to Denver

Recently I was asked to give opening remarks at a pediatric care conference named in honor of my son. My preparation included both a careful crafting of remarks and a deep recognition of the significance of returning to Brian’s home city of Denver.

There was a ritual for getting there.

First, call close family and friends. All of us love Brian. We draw strength, meaning, and understanding from one another’s stories, words, and actions. We are part of the tightly knit group of folks who continue trying to make meaning of the tragedy of losing such a fine young man. We name conferences and scholarships after him. We hold on to precious mementos that were once his. And all of these things move us further along the mysterious path of grief and acceptance.

Brian kayaking

Brian kayaking

Second, travel with an open heart. Tuck some things in the suitcase that will remind me to see and feel his spirit which is around me always—a beautiful stone sculpture found on the beach, an exquisite bone carved eagle whistle, some of his ashes, a candle, the black wristband with his name. Create an altar in the hotel room. Spend time with it.

The conference was held at the Colorado History Museum. Nearly 200 EMS personnel attended with another 300 engaged through a live streaming webinar. Every county in Colorado had people listening. My slides worked and my message was more prescient than I could know.

As each of you who do this work knows, you have to find a place inside yourself to carry some of the darker sides of society that your job confronts you with on a pretty regular basis. You can get discouraged or cynical or you can grow your soul big enough to hold life’s paradoxes.


Banner on side of Denver Health of Brian helping a patient

Banner on side of Denver Health of Brian helping a patient


What followed was an entire day of power points and talks about the trauma that children experience: abuse, trafficking, drug exposure, domestic violence, etc. The presenters included leaders of all aspects of childhood trauma from the Denver EMS system: doctors, district attorneys, a firefighter, detectives, social services. The charge to the listeners: watch for signs and symptoms of abuse and need, you have a legal responsibility to report/to help children.

During the final panel presentation, I asked the question, ”There are numerous new EMS personnel in the audience. I can imagine that these presentations have been a both eye opening and overwhelming. What would each of you as leaders in your various departments say to a young paramedic or firefighter or policeman who experiences some of their own trauma after dealing with one of these situations?”

Panelists acknowledged the very real challenges and the need to break free of internalized beliefs of being weak if you can’t handle these things. Each one said, “Talk to us. Talk to peers. Don’t stuff it.” And more than one of them acknowledged, “We don’t do a very good job with this. As a system we need to learn together how to be more supportive.”

Third, allow grief, welcome the broken heart. After having dinner with some of Brian’s friends, I went back to my hotel room, sat in the chair next to the little altar of tangible things, looked at the moonlit silhouette of the distant Rockies, blew the eagle whistle to send out my call for his spirit, and in the stillness that followed just wept and wept. It has been 2 years, 3 months. Life goes on, and sometimes it stops so I can touch again into the bottom of the well of my grief at losing my son.

Altar Ann created in her hotel room

Altar Ann created in her hotel room

There was a ritual for leaving.

I had a fitful night of sleep. When I awoke, the thought came to me, “None of Brian’s ashes have been scattered in his home city.” So, I got my things together, checked out of my room, left my bags with the concierge, and walked across the street to the Colorado History Museum and its landscaping. I went back to the boulder I had sat on to eat my lunch the day before.

Brian in active duty

Brian in active duty

No one was around this frosty Sunday morning, so I spoke aloud to my son. “I do believe you will always remain an important part of Colorado EMS history.” I scattered the small bag of his ashes around the stone. It felt just perfect. Then I took off walking the city that Brian loved, that helped him come into the strength of his gifts as a street paramedic.

We never know what will come. All we can know is this moment and how we are with those around us.

 When you are young, you probably don’t think much about the word legacy because you are busy living your lives, not imagining that some day people will reflect on what you have done and how you have done it. Brian left a legacy without planning to leave a legacy. (Words from my slideshow talk at the conference.)

 I am older. I am thinking about legacy. This trip served as a powerful reminder to me to continue to strive to live each day to its fullest—which means the inclusion of plenty of time for wandering and wondering and openness to life’s intangibles.

Brian on a mountaintop

Brian on a mountaintop


Stardust, Black Holes, & Fog

Our mother always loved the open road. In the 1950s with three, then four, small children and not much money, she would pack us in the car and head west from Indiana or Minnesota to various family homes scattered throughout California, Oregon, Washington, and Montana. Two-lane blacktop in the era before Interstate highways and no air conditioning. Our father would stay and work, taking the bus to Montana to meet us at his parents’ homestead and drive home.

Now, her gypsy adventuring is confined to Chemainus Health Care Centre, and the only road ahead of her is the last stretch before dying. In the midst of her short-term memory loss and physical frailties, we who know her spirit are trying to help her make this stretch meaningful. Based on the rows of books on progressive theology, social justice, and conscious aging that I sorted out of her apartment, she was planning on navigating this passage with full mental faculties and an ability to educate those around her.

Instead, we deal with stardust, black holes, and fog. When embedded in long-held routines, she functions with surprising clarity as her church friend emailed: “Connie participated fully in the service.  …There was no doubt she felt happy and I was surprised how many people she knew by name.”

She knows these names and routines because they are encoded far enough back that she has a memory link for them. Memories have to make it through the fog, not get trapped in the black-hole, and then maybe turn into stardust—a point of remembering. Meanwhile, it’s a hard adjustment to live in the fog of new surroundings, routines, and people.

Later that afternoon, she managed to dial my sister’s phone and Becky emailed: “Mom called an hour ago confused about a lot of things… We talked again about the process that brought her to Chemainus. That it was her goal to be back among friends. That where her bed is not the important point. What is important is that her home is her community.

“Obviously she was very tired. She may be able to do well in the mornings but she gets more confused as she fatigues. She told me, “And I’m cold here.” As a nurse walked by she yoo-hooed out to her. When the nurse asked what she needed Mom asked me, “What did I need to tell her?” So I said, “tell her you’re cold.”

In a jumbled reality capacities are jumbled as well : she can delight her friends with glimpses of the dynamic woman they have known for 25 years and she requires constant repetition to frame what has happened to her. Her sequencing behavior is nearly gone: being chilled she can’t remember that the lap robe beside her could be wrapped at her shoulders. She has fallen 3 times just moving around her 8×10 room, forgetting to use her walker.

Yet, even under these conditions, she seeks to find a daily purpose: Why get up in the morning? Why breathe? How do I make it down this last stretch of road?

Every day I send her this message telepathically—it works as well as any other delivery method—“Mom, you can work around your foggy brain and find your reason for being. Bring bits of kindness to those around you—hold a hand, listen, help—and receive all these things in turn. Make music. Notice beauty. When you forget, just do it all again. You are safe now to wander in mystery from one moment to the next.”

The last day she was in her apartment, she woke from dozing in her chair and recited a poem she’d made up in her sleep:

“You see me sitting alone in my chair,

You think that I’m here, but I’m really out there—

Communing with angels, I’ll be with them soon,

Just after I learn how to jump over the moon.”


Learning to jump the moon—that’s a purpose. And however she makes that leap, she will be a teacher and way shower for her family and friends.

The photos here show our journey: 1946 to 2016… 1946






and the video shows the journey moment of her soul.

Standing in Stardust

Until last Monday, my mother was living in Nanaimo, BC in a nice apartment in an independent senior housing community. She had moved there in May 2013 from her townhouse in Ladysmith and from her church in Chemainus… both small towns about 35 kilometers south on Vancouver Island. Though her impetus was to “take in more city culture,” the past three years have been a spiral into diminishing capacities: increasing short-term memory loss, decreasing mobility, breast cancer. As we, particularly my sister Becky, worked across the US/Canadian border to bring care around her, she was wobbling in a widening gap of services.

In early October 2015, she had “a frontal lobe incident.” Her health aides put her in hospital: her friends called for help. In the past four months I have spent 30 days in Nanaimo with my sister, my brother, or brother-in-law. In mid-December she started falling: cracked her forehead on the corner wall, to hospital for sutures; delusional and disoriented, to hospital for observation; hand puffed up, to hospital for diagnosis of cellulitis; burn on her shoulder blade, to hospital for culturing.

Early January, a Health Services committee cleared her for referral to government subsidized complex care. No one was making any prediction as to when this would happen, or where she will be sent. She was in the queue along with hundreds of other vulnerable seniors. As my sister, brother-in-law and I headed north, again, and I suggest to Becky, “prepare to stay on.”

And then a miracle occurs: a place opens up in complex care. The place is in Chemainus Health Care Centre, her first choice. All her friends live within a few minutes radius her church community is 6 blocks away.

And everything starts to flow! We are standing in stardust. Her friends prepare to welcome her home. We bring mom to see the place, trying to explain this move to a woman with almost no “now.” She does remember volunteering here and playing piano for the residents. Her former neighbor is the activities director. Everyone starts telling us how stable the staff is, how happy the place is, how good the care. We are gulping sighs of relief.

All weekend our mother asks, “Is something big about to happen to me?”

We say, “Yes. You are moving back to Chemainus. You are moving into nursing care, mom. You’ll have what you need to keep safe, and it will be a big adjustment.”

“What will happen to everything?” she gestures to her apartment.

“A few things will come with you to make your new home. The rest we will take care of.”

Sunday we take her for a long drive in the countryside up the coast. She’s too cold to get out of the car, but we enjoy vistas, get cake and coffee, and drive home to her apartment for a last dinner in the dining room. Mom and her daughters sleep in the apartment together one last time.

Monday—she goes “into care.” First night, she’s in a temporary holding room and looks at us like a baby bird peeking out of a nest. Walking away is heartbreaking. My sister and I hold hands and cry and drive north to take apart her household.

The next day she is moved into her own room, 8×10 feet, with a picture window—ocean view. We bring her clothes, artwork and photos, television, CD player and one small box of classical CDs. She has a room that is the right size for her brain and body, and a view that is the right size for her soul.

Over the years, she has read 20 books on conscious aging and dying. There is no reason to sugarcoat what is happening. We repeat and repeat until something gets through the fog that surrounds her and lodges in her mind on the other side of short-term memory dementia.

“Is this my forever room?”

“Yes, Mom.”

“I don’t have to move again?”

“No mom.”

“This is where I will live until I die?”


“This is where I belong?” She stares out the window a bit.

“Yes. Your children will come visit and all your friends are nearby.”

“You can find me?”

“We know exactly where you are.”

“Who pays for this?”

“It comes from your pension. You don’t have to worry about money anymore.”

As I post this blog, it’s been a week. She is guided down the hall to play piano. She is taken to church among friends. She has a chair with view to heaven on earth. She is re-embedded in community.

She is tired and grieving and settling in—so are we all. I come home knowing she is still on her soul journey—that the mind and the brain work with each other, and sometimes have to work around each other. She asks, “What is my job now?”

I tell her, “Your work is to let love all the way in and to offer love all the way out.”

And so it is for us all.


A room the size of her brain, a view the sizze of her soul.

A room the size of her brain, a view the size of her soul.



February 2 is halfway between the December solstice and the March equinox. It is a time in the northern hemisphere when day length has jumped from 8 hours from sunrise to sunset to 9 ¾ hours. The light is returning and the plants are showing it here in western Washington.

Green garlic sprigs protected by leaves

Green garlic sprigs protected by leaves

The garlic is up. Tulips are peaking through the soil. Heather is starting to bloom. And it is time to prune the raspberry canes!


Tulips beginning to poke up through the soil

Tulips beginning to poke up through the soil

Heather beginning to bloom in the garden

Heather beginning to bloom in the garden








In early Christian celebrations it was literally a time all the candles from mass were melted down and formed into new candles for the new season. In pagan observances this day was marked by the Gaelic festival, Imbolc. In more modern times it is noted as Ground Hog Day. No matter your religious or celebration preference it is definitely exciting to be thinking about warmer temperatures and longer days. . . or for my friends in Melbourne, Australia it’s great to be thinking relief from the heat of midsummer.

Pruned raspberry canes piled on a tarp to be hauled away for compost

Pruned raspberry canes piled on a tarp to be hauled away for compost

Even in our highly technological era, we ARE still affected by the rising and setting of the sun, the rotation of the earth on its axis, and the relentless progression of the seasons. The invitation here is to pause, go outdoors, and make one observation about the earth in this season in your local community and imagine how your observation might be different on spring equinox, March 21.