Sunday, June 14, 2015

Bliss Complete: For My Mom on her 60th Birthday

Today is my mom's 60th birthday.  We celebrated by reading the "Grandma Sally Adventure Series" that I wrote shortly after she passed away, and then writing messages on balloons and sending them soaring up to her in Heaven.  I love that Noah is getting to the age where I can tell him all about her and he understands and remembers.

Noah said his balloon says, "I love you.  From heart to heart to heart.  I wish you were back.  I hope to see you soon.  When I go up to Heavenly Father, I'll see you." I told him that I hoped it wasn't too soon that he goes up to Heavenly Father to see Grandma Sally, and he agreed.  He said he will live a long and happy life first.

Each year we do something different for our "Sallybration" on my mom's birthday, and tonight's was simple and sweet. I loved it.

As for her 60th birthday blog tribute, instead of sharing 60 memories of her, I thought I would share a personal narrative that I wrote in the months just after her death.  (It's long!  Be forewarned!)  I wrote this narrative during my sophomore year of college after I saw a flier for a campus-wide writing contest.  I decided to take that opportunity to write about my mother--to hole myself away in my room and spend hours remembering her.  This was my way of grieving, of making sure that I never, ever forgot, of honoring her through my words.

Though it's not the most polished thing I've ever written, it remains my favorite--because I have never given so much of my heart to one piece of writing.

This narrative is titled "Bliss Complete," and tonight as my little family let those balloons go up up up into the perfect blue sky, I felt a little piece of the bliss that comes only from loving people so much that your heart swells and fills and somehow never breaks, even when they are gone--because you had them.  And that in and of itself is a miracle.

I understand now how my mother loved me.  And just as I would never leave my children behind, I know she hasn't left me either.

Happy 60th Birthday, Mama.  Sending love (and balloons!) from earth to heaven.

Bliss Complete

Dad kept the sprinklers running all week to try to keep the roses alive.  Scattered across the front lawn, the flowers welcomed mourners to our home and reminded them of her vibrant gift for living.  But the reds, pinks, and yellows faded in the record-breaking heat of that week in July.  And the roses died.

I stepped out the front door, a stack of journals and my laptop computer in my arms.  I wanted to stay.  I wanted to stay where I could hear so many conversations going on at once—funeral preparations, long distance phone calls, and friends bringing condolences.  I wanted to stay where the chaos around me matched the chaos inside my brain.  But I had to get out.  It was the only way.

My foot crunched a dried-up rose as I walked towards the neighbors’ house, watching waves of heat rise from the asphalt of the cul-de-sac.  The Cowans had called and offered their home as soon as they’d heard the news, in case we needed some solitude or a place for relatives to stay.  At least they have an air conditioner that works, I reassured myself as I punched in their garage code.  Our air conditioner had died Monday morning.  Everything died on us that week.

The door leading into the Cowan’s empty house squeaked open and then slammed behind me.  I stood alone in the silence, and I didn’t move a muscle.  So this is it.  This is where I’ll write the talk that I’m going to give tomorrow at Mama’s funeral.

Today was the day.  I had no other choice, not if I really wanted to go through with giving this speech.  And I was going to go through with it—I had told her that I would.  I told her Monday morning, my arms wrapped around her swollen belly as I lay beside her in her bed.



I had taken a deep breath, wondering how I could speak the words.  “I know what I’m going to talk about at your funeral.”  Somehow I was always saying the words that no one else had the courage to say in those last few weeks.

“What are you going to talk about, Rach?”

“I thought of it yesterday while Sary, Laura, and I were singing for the congregation at church.  I was looking at you in the audience, and all of the sudden, I understood what the words of ‘Love At Home’ mean—what they really mean.”  I swallowed.  “‘Making life a bliss complete, when there’s love at home.’  That’s it.  That’s what I’m going to talk about.”

She waited for me to continue.

“I mean, because the song doesn’t say ‘making life a bliss long;’ it says ‘making life a bliss complete.’  And that’s you, Mama.  You’ve made my life so blissful because of the love you’ve brought into our home.  And even though your life hasn’t been a bliss long, it’s definitely been a bliss complete.”

She was crying. 

I hugged her a little tighter. “I’m going to tell everyone about your bedtime stories and our late-night talks in my room, the stars you decorated our bedroom doors with before our plays, and the Harry Potter party you threw me--and how we talked on the phone almost every day last year when I was at college.”

She found my hand and squeezed it.  “Rachel, all I ever wanted was love in our home.  And yesterday, looking at you three girls up there singing, I realized that I got it.  I got everything I ever wanted.”

A few hours later I called 9-1-1 because my mom had lost consciousness.  I lay beside her on the floor and sang “Love At Home” while my dad and sisters rushed home from work. 

Just as she had wanted, the five of us were together when she slipped away.  We were circled around her bed in the emergency room, hands tightly clasped.  Then God took her from our family circle.  And she left us alone.

Yes, I would go through with this talk.

Settled in an arm chair in the Cowan’s living room, I stared at the blank computer screen in front of me.  Blank, like my stunned heart. I started typing.

My sisters and I had the opportunity to sing an arrangement of “Love At Home,” one of our favorite hymns, to our church congregation this past Sunday.  My mom was so grateful that she was well enough to be there to hear her girls sing.

Grateful is an understatement.  Her tears didn’t stop for the rest of the meeting.

As the three of us sang the familiar words, one of the lines of the hymn that I had never really noticed before suddenly took on new meaning to me: “Making life a bliss complete, when there’s love at home.”  Although I never expected that she would pass away the next day—

Another understatement.

I knew that I didn’t have much time left with my mom.  But in that moment, as my eyes settled on her face among all the faces in the congregation, I realized that my life has truly been a“bliss complete” because of the love that my mother brought to our home each and every day of her life.

I stopped typing.  I stared into the air around me, the enormity of the task ahead suddenly taking hold of my lungs.  I couldn’t breathe.  How could I possibly capture this woman in words?  Her life, her goodness, her love.  I prayed for the words.  I prayed that I would be able to breathe again.

The cursor at the end of my thought blinked at me for several minutes before I could continue.  And then I did the only thing I could think to do—start with what I already had, with what I had told my mom I would talk about that morning in her bed:

When I think of love at home—

My fingers shook as I typed.

—I think of bedtime stories, which were so important to us as little girls.  Mom even recorded them on tapes so that we could listen to them while she was in the hospital for two and a half months during her bone marrow transplant.

“Mommy, why do you have to go away?”

My first memory. Snuggled up to my mom’s warm side, legs under her gray bedspread, my sisters and I watched as she struggled with Daddy’s tape recorder from work.

“I have to go away because I’m sick, Rach.”

“That’s why you don’t have hair,” Sarah piped in from her other side.

“Yes, sweetheart.” She pulled us in closer. “But you’ll only have to listen to bedtime stories on tape for a little while. Mommy’s coming home. And when I come home, I will be better, and I will read you all the books you want.”

“Really?!” Our eyes were wide.


The cursor blinked at me again as I remembered that night thirteen years earlier. Mommy had come home. She never stopped fighting for the chance to raise her girls.

I leaned my head back and stared at the white ceiling fan above me, picturing her throughout all the stages of my life: As I had first known her, a mother of three very young children, full of energy and health as she helped us with crafts on the back porch picnic table. Then as a mother of three elementary schoolers, her flowered baseball cap barely covering her bald head at the school-sponsored Mothers’ Day Tea. As I had known her later in life, a mother of three teenaged girls, kneeling in a circle with her family and praying for the Holy Spirit to dwell in our home. Finally as a mother of three young women, frail and tired in those last few weeks of her life, laughing with my aunts as they quilted baby blankets for the grandchildren she would never know. 

My eyes focused on the ceiling fan above me. Spinning…spinning…spinning…like the pictures in my head. I couldn’t differentiate between when she had been sick and when she had not. Throughout the years, the cancer had come and gone, come and gone. But it all mixed together because, through it all, she had remained the same.

I looked down from the fan and began typing again. My heart knew the next part.

When I think of love at home, I think of the creak of my mom’s bedroom door. My mom could never sleep until she knew that each of her girls was home safe and happy, and as a teenager, I looked forward to the sound of the creak of her door when she heard me come in for the night. She would come into my room and ask how my evening had been, and we would often end up sitting on my bed and talking for hours.

“Mama, he finally kissed me!”

“Mama, my friends were drunk again at the football game—what is happening to them?”

“Mama, what if I don’t get a part in the school play?”

And in the last few months:

“Mama, how can I make the most out of my life?”

“Mama, it’s okay if you aren’t excited to die. It’s because your family is Heaven enough for you—and I think God wants it to be that way.”

“Mama, I’ve decided I’m going to write a book about you. Then my kids will know what their grandma was like.”

Lines from those late night conversations echoed in my mind. Her laughter, her wisdom, her advice. It was all etched so deeply within me that I knew I would never forget. Some things were fading already: the memory of her voice singing “Edelweiss” at bedtime; the sound of the oxygen chord dragging behind her on the wood floor; the smell on her bath robe. So many things were slipping away. But those late night conversations—never. Never.

Truly, my fondest memory of my mom is our long talks, so often very late at night. 

I liked to joke with my mom that the creak of her door was not always a welcome sound. When I was late for curfew or trying to sneak out for some toilet papering with my middle school friends, I’d cringe and try to run and hide when I heard that creak! But that was the type of mother my mom was: always concerned for, aware of, and much much smarter than her children.

I took in a deep breath and held it for a moment with my eyes closed. How could I capture all of this? How could I even try? I opened my eyes with a sigh, letting them wander anywhere but to my computer screen.

I picked up a journal from the stack beside the chair. I allowed myself to forget the unfinished talk in front of me for a few minutes as I flipped through the pages, losing myself in all the years that had passed: an email from my first love, a candy bar note from Mom, special cards from Grandma and Grandpa. A construction paper ghost fluttered out of the open notebook and landed on the beige carpet beside my chair.  It smiled up at me, and I smiled back.  I had almost forgotten about that ghost. The memory strengthened me, and I faced my computer again.

When I think of love at home, I think of doors decorated with stars before shows and big auditions.  I’ll never forget coming out to my car to drive to my All-State Choir audition my junior year of high school and finding the interior covered with encouraging notes from my mom.  My audition was the day before Halloween, and the note stuck to my steering wheel was a construction paper ghost saying, “You’ll sing boo-tifully!”  Mom’s sense of humor always eased my nerves and lessened my self-doubts.

Another stopping place. “Heavenly Father, please help me.  I can’t do this alone.”  I wanted to say more.  I wanted to describe my grief over losing my best friend, my discouragement at the daunting task before me, my anger that He’d taken my mother away.  But I was too weary.

She had told us of her own desperate prayers as we sat on the back porch in a family circle Sunday evening. “Every day, I plead with the Lord, ‘Dear Father, let me live.  Let me live to raise my girls.’  I always felt, somewhere deep inside, that God would answer that prayer.  And now here you are—sixteen, nineteen, and twenty-one.  Is that raised?  I don’t know.  But I look at the three of you, and I am so proud of the women you have become.  I am so proud to be your mother.”

The women we’ve become.  I started writing again.

When I think of love at home, I think of the times my mom was hard on us girls.  My mother was so wise with her advice, her punishments, and her approach to parenting.  I’ll never forget the times she made me take a taxi to school because she was tired of bailing me out when I missed the bus; or one night when we had a bunch of obnoxious friends over being rowdy at 3 a.m., and we heard her voice thundering down the stairs, “If you don’t live here, go home!  If you do live here, go to bed!”

I chuckled as I remembered the looks on their faces.  They cleared out of our house in a hurry.

She was endlessly patient, but she also knew where to draw the line: a perfect combination.  She showed us she loved us by being hard on us once in a while.  And times weren’t always perfect.  There were many times when I’m sure we drove her crazy, hurt her feelings, and made her worry.  My older sister had some unusually rough years in high school—

Waking up in the middle of the night to them yelling at each other, wondering if there would ever be peace in my home again.  Did that really happen?  It seemed so long ago, so hard to remember.  Sarah was a different person now, and Mom had erased those nights from her memory.

—and when my sister is asked how she made it through, she has to reply “because my mom just kept loving me.”  When I think of love at home, I think of the many times that Mom never gave up on her girls.

I paused for a moment, then I continued. She had never considered “her girls” to be just her own three.

When I think of love at home, I think of the way my mom opened her home and her heart to our friends.  My mom loved teenagers.  She worked extensively in the Young Women’s program at our church, and she always seemed to be able to see into teenagers’ hearts.  Recently, one of my closest friends told me that the thing she most admired about my mom was that she knew that no matter what, no matter how much trouble she was getting into on the weekends, she was always welcome in our home.  She had some very rebellious years but often came to our home for love and refuge.  She knew that my mom could see past her clothes and her unwise decisions into her heart.

Meg would be at the service tomorrow.  She was flying in from Tennessee.  She couldn’t miss saying goodbye to her “Mother Westover.”

My mom took in kids from all walks of life, and they felt her love within our home.

The sound of his voice broke the cold silence of the Cowan’s home: “RW the big RW?”

I grinned.  Only my Dad could call me one of his ridiculous nicknames at a time like this. “Daddy!” I called into the hallway, opening my arms for a hug as soon as he came into view.

“How’s it comin’, girl?”  He rustled my hair as he took a seat on the arm of my chair.

I covered my computer screen, not wanting him to read the words that I found so inadequate.  “Dad, this is hard.”

“I know.”

“How can I ever do her justice?”

“You can’t, Rach.”  I looked up at him, and he continued.  “But you can try.”

I hugged him around the waist, resting my head on his chest.


“She was really something, wasn’t she, Rachel?”

“Oh yeah.”

“And you know what?  You’re really somethin’ too.”

I smiled without looking up, snuggling a little closer to him and breathing him in.  After a few minutes, he kissed me on the head.  “Well, girlfriend, I’ll leave you to it.”  He paused before leaving the room, “And just remember, you’re RW the awesome RW!”  And he was gone.

More silence.

My Daddy. The unfinished document before me blurred as tears filled my eyes for the first time in days. I cried as I thought of the way he looked last night at dinner. Aunts, cousins, friends talking a mile a minute all around him—he didn’t notice.  He stared at his plate.

I cried as I thought of the weekend they told us, in a hotel room at La Quinta in Orem, Utah.  They’d driven all the way from Colorado to “talk as a family.”  We knew what that meant.  We’d heard the words so many times before: “Girls, your mom is sick again.”  But this time, they weren’t telling us that Mama was sick; this time they were telling us that Mama was dying.

I cried as I remembered the first time I saw her after the fateful news, in another hotel room in Moab, Utah. I typed as I cried:

When I think of love at home, I think of the way my mom kept fighting through her illness, never complaining or letting the cancer get the better of her, just so she could be with her family.  This past March, two days after her brain surgery, she insisted that she and my dad drive out to Moab, Utah to watch me run my first half marathon race.
“Rachel, I’m coming to your half marathon.”

“Mom, please don’t worry about it.  It’s two days after your surgery.  Trust me, Mom, I understand if you can’t be there.”

“Oh, I know you understand.  But I want to be there.  I am going to be there when my baby crosses the finish line after running thir-teen miles!”  She let out a cheer on the other end of the phone line.

And she made it all right.  I laughed through my tears as I remembered the way she had marched into our hotel room the night before the race with a homemade sign in each hand, one for me and one for my friend who was running with me, humming her own triumphant parade music.

I continued:

When I crossed the finish line, there was my mom, with scars on her forehead but a huge smile on her face.  She was the first person to come over and give me a hug.

I need water. 

Only the sound of my feet on the kitchen floor and the opening of cupboards as I searched for a cup broke the stillness.  I stood beside the Deep Rock water dispenser, staring out the sliding glass door while I sipped.  The neighbor kids were jumping on their trampoline.  My mind was so blurry—how could the neighbor kids be jumping on their trampoline when my mom was dead?  The world around me moved on, but I stood frozen.

She’s not gone.  She can’t be.

I remembered the moment I’d buried my face in the scratchy cushions of the emergency room couch and told myself to wake up.  I told myself over and over, squeezing my eyes so tightly that the blackness started to burn.  But I opened my eyes to the nightmare—I was not dreaming.  There was the doctor.  There was my dad, staring vacantly at the clipboard in front of him.  There was my mom, white like porcelain and still.  So still.

I had to move.

I strode back to my computer and began typing rapidly—there was another celebration I had to mention.  Something else my mom would never have been willing to miss.

When I came home from college in May, she helped me throw a Harry Potter birthday party and put all of her limited energy into making my party a success. On the evening of the big occasion, she glowed with an excitement that I hadn’t seen in her for months. 

As each of the guests walked in, she slid her glasses down to the tip of her nose, put her hand on her hip in what she considered an intimidating pose, and declared, “Look!  I’m McGunnell!”

“Mo-ther!  It’s McGonagall!” “Oh.  Right.  I’m McGonagall!”

The words kept coming, flowing faster than my fingers could type:

The evening was a total blast, complete with elaborate costumes, decorations, food, and games.  The night meant so much to me, and for my mom’s birthday in June, I framed our family photo from that occasion, all five of us in full-out character and costume, in classic Westover fashion.

The note.  Where was that note? I grabbed my journal from the floor, quickly flipping the colored pages.  I knew it was in there somewhere—I’d copied it before I had given it to her.

There it was on my Hogwarts stationary: the note that had made her cry when I gave it to her at the Pancake House during her birthday brunch.  I read the words.  It was so personal.  Too personal?  No, I wanted to share this. I wanted to share what my mom had given me with all the friends and family who were gathering to celebrate her life. So I continued:

With the frame, I wrote my mom a note that I would like to read to you today because I feel it captures so many of the gifts my mother has given me over the years.

I held the letter in one hand—squinting at the faint, xeroxed words—and typed with the other:

I picked this photo and frame out special because to me it captures so much more than just a great picture of a great night. When I look at this picture, I see years and years of family fun: theme parties, vacations, laughter and love in everyday life.Let’s face it…our family has fun together! I think the love and happiness we have in our home is unusual, and it is the blessing for which I am the most thankful.

When I look at this picture, I see the years that were a gift from God, the thirteen years that we weren’t “supposed” to have.I feel so blessed for those years. What would we have done without you? We certainly wouldn’t be the family we are today.I certainly wouldn’t be the woman I am today.

And finally, when I look at this picture, I see the greatest gift and legacy you’ve given me: the ability to keep my chin up and keep having fun and bringing joy to others, even when things are rotten. I see the countless times you did something a little extra for our family, to make our sometimes bleak lives magical. And it really has been magical, hasn’t it? Thank you for showing me how to enjoy to the end.I know things in our lives are only gonna get tougher from here, but I framed this picture for myself too, and when life is hard, I hope we’ll both look at this picture and remember our blessings and remember that life is, and always can be, magical. That’s the greatest lesson you’ve taught me.

Happy birthday, Mama.

I love you, Rachel

Sleep.  I have to sleep.

I staggered over to the couch and put my face in one of the fluffy cushions.  Blackness.  Like the total blackness of the night that she died. I’d prayed so fervently that night as I lay in bed between my sleeping sisters, staring into the darkness of the room, “Please Heavenly Father, show me Heaven.  Show me where my mom is, just for one second.  One second is all I’m asking, and then I can believe.”

But He didn’t show me Heaven.  And as I lay there in the darkness, I wondered if that was all that came after this life—blackness.  What if everything I’ve always believed is a lie?
The morning light renewed my faith, but the blackness of night brought nightmares about those terrifying moments before I called 9-1-1.  The blackness at night haunted my faith in a world beyond my own.

Yet with my face pressed into the pillow on the Cowan’s couch, my blurred mind felt heavy with all the thoughts and memories.  As I had so many times that summer, I endured the darkness, blocked out reality, and went to sleep.

When I awoke, the living room clock showed 6:04 p.m.  I groaned and rolled over to face into the navy blue couch.  I was awake again.  And she was still dead.  And I had still not seen Heaven.  And I still had a talk to finish.

I knew what had to be written next, and I needed one of her hugs to give me courage.  There had been so many hugs at the end, when she was no longer strong enough to stand by herself.  The lucky person who stood in front of her and lifted her up from her chair got an automatic hug as she steadied herself on her weak feet.

“I need a hug, Mama.”  My request went unanswered in the silence of the Cowan’s living room.  I settled in front of my computer again.

When I think of love at home, I will always think of those last few months of my mother’s life, when there were so many hugs, so many evenings working on scrapbooks as a family, so many nights falling asleep with my arms around her, and so many “I love yous."  The Holy Spirit in our home was stronger than it ever had been before because of the growing intensity of my mom’s love for us.

And now for the hardest part.

I had the great privilege of spending the day with my mom on Monday.  It was such a special day, as we laughed and talked and just sat together.  I wanted to share some of my favorite verses of scripture with her, and as I flipped through the pages, my eyes landed on a verse about death that I had never really noticed before, and it hit me with such force that I almost cried.  I wanted to share it with my mother, but I never got the chance before she needed to be rushed to the emergency room, where she passed away.   

Later that night, after we had returned home from the hospital, I sat on the front steps of my home and took in the stillness.  A cool wind was blowing and someone had scattered roses up our front steps and across our lawn.  I got out my scriptures and read the verse aloud to my mom:

“And I soon go to the place of my rest, which is with my Redeemer; for I know that in Him I shall rest.  And I rejoice in the day when my mortal shall put on immortality, and shall stand before Him; then shall I see His face with pleasure, and He will say unto me: Come unto me, ye blessed, there is a place prepared for you in the mansions of my Father.  Amen.”

In the quiet that followed, I felt sure that somewhere, somehow, my mom had heard my words.  And not only had she heard them, she had experienced them for herself. In the dark moments that have followed this past week—those lonely times in the middle of the night when I have awakened and wondered if everything that I have ever believed is a lie—I have held on to that moment on the front steps of my home, that moment of complete peace and assurance that there is something wonderful beyond this life, and my mom is a part of it. 

I exhaled. In the stillness of the Cowan’s home, I felt the same assurance I’d felt in that moment on the front steps.  Something inside reaffirmed that the words I had just typed were true: The blackness is not everything.  God had not taken my mom from our family circle in the emergency room.  Our family is eternal.

I’ve always known it.  She taught me from the time I was a three-year-old kneeling beside her and learning to pray.  She taught me every day of her life, even in that last afternoon we spent together.  I’ve always known that my family is forever.  But as I lived the nightmare, as I faced those dark moments in the middle of the night, I finally understood what that really means.

My closing words came without deliberation, came from the most honest place in my heart.

I thank her for everything she was and everything that she gave to me.  I thank her for making my life a “bliss complete” because of the love she brought to our home.  And as another line in the hymn says, I know that a very special woman in heaven “smiles above when there’s love at home.”  That we may always live with the kind of love in our home that would be worthy for my mom to smile down on us is my prayer.

In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

I closed my eyes and put my head in my hands.  The air came in and out of my lungs so easily.

I don’t know how much time passed before I switched off my computer, stacked my journals, and walked to the front door.  Outside the front window, I could see Brother Mosier and his family pulling weeds from our rocks and trimming the edges of our grass, preparing our home for the open house the next day. But no one touched the roses.

The heat swallowed me as I stepped from the silence into the busyness of the evening. I waved at the Mosiers, followed the roses up the front lawn, and went back into my home.

My family was waiting for me.


  1. "Magical." Yes. Perfection. xo

  2. So touching and beautiful. I can't help sob a little. Thank you so much for sharing xoxo


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