Thursday, August 19, 2010

Martha's Miracle

(This story starts HERE. This is the last part.)

Martha came home every year for Christmas. I tried to make the visits upbeat and fun. It was always disastrous. She would relive her miserable childhood, dragging her nieces and nephews into it. It seemed like she was determined to have everyone in tears; that’s what Christmas was to her. She arrived in dirty clothes with a suitcase full of dirty laundry for us to wash. Symbolic? Passive aggression ruled. And I was being ludicrous trying to make Christmas perfect for our kids. We would buy Martha's plane ticket, and then resent her for not being grateful enough. I came to dread her arrival.

Our father committed suicide (succeeding where Martha had failed). Martha and I got re-acquainted as adults during the horrific aftermath. We shared some very private things - each of us had thought we were alone, that it had only happened to us - and it was crazy that in this mess we finally felt like real sisters, perhaps for the first time. I noticed that Martha was different, too. Her clothes were clean and stylish. She turned down offers of wine. She said she was in AA. Here's a crime. I pooh poohed it. After a few more disastrous Christmases, we took Martha out to a nice restaurant (sound familiar?) and suggested that maybe Christmas was too emotionally charged of a time for her visit. Maybe she should come during the summers.

I didn't hear from Martha again for sixteen years.

I tried a couple of times to find her. The phone number I had was disconnected. Mail sent to her address was returned, no forwarding information known. Once I even paid $30 to do an Internet search, which only produced the last address and phone number that I already had and didn't work.

I wondered if she were alive.

In March of 2009 I was writing a blog post. A tribute to my dear friend Carolyn (Easy's mom) who had died that morning. My phone rang. Was I Patience? Yes. Did I have a sister Martha? Yes... Oh, God. The kind voice told me that Martha was in the ICU. She had advanced ovarian cancer. They had done an ileostomy. Could I speak to her? No, she's on a ventilator. Would she allow me to visit? Yes. Yes, I think that's a good idea.

That was one of Martha's angels.

During those sixteen years, Martha found a family. Through Alcoholics Anonymous. In Martha's hospital room there was a constant stream of visitors. Sometimes there was a line down the hospital hall because there wasn't enough space in her room to accommodate everyone. And I saw something I had never in my life seen in Martha's eyes: trust. I was incredulous.

She looked at her friends, right in the eye, with trust. Vulnerable, honest, loving trust. And she smiled and she laughed. What was this?

Here are some photos of Martha's Christmases after she stopped coming home.

She's looking into the camera and smiling. Really smiling. Not the grimace I was accustomed to seeing on film.

Martha managed an A.A. facility. She babysat during meetings, babysat for members. Her hospital room was wallpapered with construction paper cards made especially for her by 'her' kids. She loved kids. Of course she was the perfect elf at every annual Christmas party.

She had worked cleaning houses, doing whatever to get by. She had ridden that bike all over Toledo year round. Imagine! Once she had been the victim of a hit and run. "I was in the paper!" she told me. "Cracked my head wide open."

During her illness, her A.A. family stepped up. There were so many angels - I literally can't tell you. Angel Janet, who had made the effort to find me, took the impossible job of getting Martha health coverage. Martha's American birth certificate had been lost. In post 9/11 bureaucracy, getting a birth certificate was impossible. Janet did it. She stopped at no obstacle, even going to the US Senate! Martha's father was a U.S. born and raised citizen who worked for the State Department, and her mother was a nurse from Iowa, for the love of God!

Janet prevailed. Martha, who had been eligible for all kinds of government assistance all of her life, and who had never taken one red penny, finally got Medicaid. Thanks entirely to Janet.

Denial, in A. A. is a bad thing. Martha believed that she was going to survive this cancer. I didn't, but I also saw that denial had to be the only thing that let Martha survive her childhood. Her adulthood. All of those rude stares and averted eyes and paternal disgust? During this last year, my presence brought Martha face to face with all of those crappy memories. We talked a lot about growing up. I felt like my job was to show Martha that I cared about her, that I loved her, to listen and listen and listen, and to make her laugh.

Martha's denial was working. She got to go home. Against all odds, all medical prediction, after 4 + months of hospitals and nursing homes. Her A.A. angels gutted her little rental house. It reeked of cat and cigarette. They tore out carpeting, they scrubbed and painted. Martha got to buy new furniture. (In a freak series of events, Martha found a tiny inheritance she should have gotten decades ago. Now, to get medicaid and SSI, she couldn't have it. Her A.A. angel took her shopping.) "I've never had new furniture," she giggled to me on the phone. "I have good taste, everyone says!"

And now comes Angel Cindi.

Cindi had a medical background. She needed a place to stay. Martha needed a caretaker. She could not be alone. Martha had three tubes draining bodily fluids. She required so much care. And she could be difficult. Being cared for - and perhaps my re-entry into her life - made her revert to some of those old passive aggressive ways. Oh, Cindi! But they talked it out. Only the nurses reading this, or those of you who have cared for a terminally ill person can know the amount of work Cindi did.

Two and a half weeks before Martha died, she was asked to lead a men's A.A. meeting. Martha was so far beyond thrilled: she was deeply touched, she was honored. I asked Cindi on the phone if Martha were strong enough. "She's going to do it," said Cindi. "She's determined."

Here are the photos from that night. (Martha's face is swollen from the steroids that went with her chemo.)

Martha's miracle. The baby deprived of human touch. The Martha who couldn't stand to be hugged. Oh she had a family. Look at her.

During my first visit in the hospital. Martha broke into tears. "I had no idea that so many people cared about me," she cried. "I had no idea."

Cindi, Janet and I were with Martha when she died. I have a picture of Cindi giving Martha a kiss on her forehead that last night. I agonized whether to include that photograph. I decided not to. Martha is in a soft, flannel nightgown. She has oxygen in her nose. She is close enough to death that her eyes appear unseeing. She's lying in her bed, on her side, Cindi leaning over and kissing her gently. The remarkable thing is that you can see Martha puckering her lips - kissing back. Leaning in. Accepting and giving back. Martha, who couldn't.

The next week I returned to Toledo for her service. Janet had helped her arrange everything with that little inheritance she needed to spend. It was held at the facility Martha used to manage. Cindi had set up photographs. Martha's elf costume, her key necklace. There were 200 chairs. Full. People standing. I got the opportunity to thank Martha's real family. And they thanked Martha. How many of them had been helped to find their sobriety. If Martha could get to every meeting riding her bike in Toledo in February, they knew she wasn't going to hear any excuse from them!

If Martha could do it. She was an inspiration. She made a difference in their lives. She was loved and respected.

This was the picture I took of Martha for Obama's healthcare reform website. She was so proud that her story made it. She had worked every day of her life, and never had a nickel's worth of health insurance.

She had the most peaceful death. She had fought it mightily, and in the end she embraced her death with all that courage and infinite grace. Yet another A.A. angel prayed with her. When I arrived, Martha gave me a big smile, focused her eyes back in this world for a moment and held up her arms.

It was an enormous gift.

Martha was the bravest person I know.


  1. Well P you have outdone yourself - not only are you a talented and gifted writer you are one of the few people who can admit they made mistakes in the past...

    Hugs from HJ & All The Canadian Whippets

  2. Patience- I am in tears reading of Martha's tragic life. I am so happy to hear that she found 16 years of love and happiness. You are the only one in your family at OS I didn't know. I adored your Mom- she's helped me so much with my own mother's illness and I spent enough time in the infirmary to know Martha a little. It much have been so hard for her living in an environment where so many girls had it all and she was hiding so much. I never had your Dad for Math, but I lived in fear of his wrath!! I admire you for putting this all into words and I hope it is cathartic for you and eases any guilt feelings you might have. I know what it's like living with family secrets and in looking back, realizing how we got to be the people we are today and how those formative years have left scars. It's in the letting go and forgiveness that we really find peace within. Be safe and thank you again for this wonderful tribute.

  3. Two things that I didn't include. When I first went out to see Martha, I offered to bring her to Paducah so that we could care for her in our home. She looked HORRIFIED. "NO! *THIS* is my home," she cried.

    Janet, Cindi, and I spread her ashes in a park near her A.A. facility, so Toledo is still her home.


  4. If Martha is the bravest, you are a very close second to be able to write and share and relive all of it with us
    with her
    with you

    I've been using the word LEGACY with regards to Bear-Bear's murder -

    That word now applies to Martha and YOU as well -

    Thank you for helping many of us to find perspective with our own lives after reading about yours -

  5. Thank you so much for bravely sharing Martha's story. She was a beautiful, brave soul and so are you.

    Thank you, thank you.


    Jen and the Black Dog Crew

  6. Dearest Patience - So much of your story, your secrets, is like reading from my own script of life. But you have the MOST endearing way of gently opening the heart, without breaking it, allowing more love to come rushing in.

    I can not thank you enough for sharing Martha with us. For what you shared was pure love from you and from her. It was an honor! And an experience that I hope will give many a chance to look more lovingly at their own families.

    I will never know what brought me, initially, to your blog - but I think it was the ice storm. You were the only connection that told me what was happening in my little "home town."

    Since then, through your blog, I have been able to laugh at the antics of "eveyday life with dogs" (it IS a different world), say good-bye to friends I have never met, and remember the tender love of GOOD people.

    My only complaint is that I had to stop reading this series off and on due to ALL of the tears!!!

    Tears of understanding? Perhaps. But truth be known you gave me the chance to let out a "good cry," that helped wash away some of my own times of woulda-coulda-shoulda.

    Oh goodness....there here those tears come if I could just find a puppy to lick them away.

    Kindness always,

  7. Thanks for sharing Martha's story; it brought tears to my eyes. You are a wonderful writer, Patience.

  8. More thanks for sharing Martha's story, and yours too. All of us are a little better for having been able to share it with you. We hope that you feel a bit better knowing that we understand the love and bravery it took to write this. Because you did, a bit of Martha and her bravery will live in each of us.


  9. I have returned 5-6 times to the ending of this thread, each time left wordless and full of awe - to have lived this life and thrived in spite of it .... remarkable. to retell Martha's story, with humility, grace, and understanding .... blessed.
    once again, i am moved to tears
    thanks for letting us in, Patience - i will no longer believe anything you say about your own writing


  10. Martha,P-Doggy and CheAugust 20, 2010 at 9:02 AM

    Dear,dear P,there are no words I can muster. I tried so hard not to cry at the library...and failed (YES,YES SOMEDAY I will have MY OWN computer,I promise!)Sister Martha would be proud of your retelling of her story,of how she found happiness at last. yes Legacy is a very GOOD word. Hugs again ((((P))))

  11. Breathtakingly painful, hopeful, peaceful and inspiring. Bless you and RIP Martha. xoxoxo

  12. Oh my gosh,,, as I was reading this post I am listing to my iPod. As soon as I commented, the R Kelly song played... I Believe I Can Fly.....

  13. P-

    You must feel very lucky to have been able to spend quality time with Martha. It is obvious that sharing memories including the ones the ones that made you laugh, cry, and even those riddled with pain, anger, and guilt, helped you both reach a common ground. From what you have shared about Martha, she was a very special person. I am glad that she was able to see how special you are too! r

  14. P-

    You must feel very lucky to have been able to spend quality time with Martha. It is obvious that sharing memories including the ones the ones that made you laugh, cry, and even those riddled with pain, anger, and guilt, helped you both reach a common ground. From what you have shared about Martha, she was a very special person. I am glad that she was able to see how special you are too! r

  15. This has been haunting me, P, since you started writing it. I haven't really been sure what, if anything, to say, but I drove in from the lake today to find internet access and say this. It came to me this AM as I was thinking about you and Martha.

    I think life (or much of life) is the wounded wounding the wounded. Some of us, like Martha, enter wounded. Some of us are wounded by alcoholic parents or abusive parents or parents who are just human. But all of us have a still center that (if we aren't terminally wounded and if we can avoid alcohol and drugs and if we can listen to the angels and friends in our lives) seeks without fail to reach something good. It's like a plant seeking the light. It's just there and it just does it. You and Martha are two people in whom that still center is strong and glowing. This story of a soul seeking and finding the light is just wonderful (tearing up now). One of the best parts is that you could be there with Martha, part of the light, a light bringer, a true sister and friend.

    As Martha's AA friends would say, "Thanks for sharing."

  16. Oh, Patience.... I'm glad that you were able to write about this.... I was at Christi's tonight and Deb and I got to talking and she mentioned how you had talked about your sister in your blog, so I came to check it out. The context is that I also posted a story in my blog, written by a fiber artist who was extremely tall as a teenager. Her parents forced her to go through height reduction surgery when she was 17, shortening her legs.

    As a tall person, I went through my own stuff as a teenager, but was fortunate to have loving parents who knew how to laugh and love. Everybody makes mistakes and we all have our crosses to bear, but I figured out a long time ago that a big part of the path to healing is being able to name the pain and then letting it go.

    You've done a beautiful job of naming and I am so glad for you that you had the opportunity to go through this healing process with your sister. I saw Bill several months ago at the Bilak's and he mentioned how much you have been struggling with all of this. What a gift both of you were given to be able to look in each others eyes and share in some love. It's never too late!!!!

    It's all very sad, but there is some good peace here, too. I'm sure that you were a part of Martha's healing process and may she be a part of yours.

    I, too, have been without health insurance since 1992. It's a huge issue and I'm glad that you were able to do some advocacy there. Chin up! You are a winner!

  17. patience, this is a lovely tribute to an amazing woman. it makes me sting to think how hard it was for people with special needs in the past.

  18. Martha's story breaks your heart. How sad. At least she found love and happiness near the end. She so earned it, and she gave it back freely. What a remarkable woman!

    Love and Lots of Koobuss Kisses,
    Koobie and Family

  19. Patience, you are a very talented person. Martha's story has given her a dignity and grace that she deserved in her childhood but failed to receive.

  20. What a moving story...thank you so much for sharing that, Patience. Your sister was an inspiration.

  21. Thank you so very much for sharing about your sister's life. I had tears in my eyes after reading her story (which was difficult to hide at work!). It was inspiring to me to live my life in a better way!

    Many blessings to you and your family!


    Dog lover

  22. Martha continues to be an inspiration. What a legacy.

  23. What a beautiful way to honour your sister and the beautiful people in her life. And what a wonderous thing that you were brought back to her.

    She looks so happy and at peace in her later photos. Thank you for sharing her story.

  24. What a wonderful tribute. Your gift with words (and the hard work that comes with the gift) and your transparency have combined to bring us all such understanding and appreciation for not only Martha, but you as well.

    It is always easy to judge ourselves harshly after the fact; unfortunately life is not that simple. It is so very, very messy.
    Even stories with happy endings can have such incredible pain and grief throughout them. How awesome to see what understanding, love, forgiveness and moving forward can do.

    Thank you for speaking for so many of us who grew up in homes like yours and have determined to create homes full of safety and healing. Now I know why you can write from such a deep place in your fiction.

    How wonderful too that our hounds can bring the healing that fills some of the aching places. Their unconditional love reminds us of the Unconditional Love that we often can't feel any other way.

    Walking this path together,

  25. Keep on posting such stories. I like to read articles like this. Just add more pics :)

  26. Humor makes life tolerable, but grief makes life worthwhile. Without grief, we would mean nothing to anyone but ourselves, and that fact would alter, at a fundamental level, the nature of our fleeting existence.

    The almighty, lounging above this situation, must see it as a divine joke. So we come full circle back to humor.

    Thank you for this story.

  27. Patience, I came across your sister’s story this morning and ended up reading all 4 parts out loud to Kristy over our morning coffee. First, I’m sorry for your losses – of your sister and your folks. Second, I admire your gift for writing. And last but not least, your honesty and humility are refreshing. Martha’s story makes me sad but also really happy. The truth is, she needed those years on her own and nobody could have known that’s what it would take for her to grow those wings. I’m so glad you were reunited with her and am so glad you’ve honored her by telling her story. Best, Michelle and Kristy.


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