Lesson's from Mom, -or- Why I left a bullfight in Terceira


View of Pico from the top of Faial, just up the hill from Horta.

Mia had a dream last night about my mom. In it, her family and my mom we're getting together somewhere (I think in Sweden). Mom was sick in the dream, and somehow Mia knew the date which she would die. But she outlived it. Everyone was worried that she shouldn't be out in public in her condition, that she wouldn't be able to handle the stress, that it would only make her worse. Annika, Mia's mom, said 'don't worry, Gail and I are going to go out and have some fun. I will take care of her.' And they did. And Mia woke up happy this morning having thought about Mom.

This is not even close to the first time either of us (or my dad, or my sister) have dreamed about my mom or had similar experiences, even while awake. Dad told me a few weeks ago that he was invited to the Phillies game with a bunch of his friends. Feeling depressed and wanting to be alone, he declined. Later that day, out on the mower in the front lawn, he told me he'd had an epiphany. 'I had this overwhelming feeling that mom was there with me,' he told me on the sat phone while we were at sea. 'She was encouraging me to live my life, to go out and have fun, to stop feeling bad for myself.' The feeling was so powerful he stopped the mower, went in the house and called Neil back, changing his mind about the game and going along. My dad is the least spiritual person in our family - he doesn't 'look' for these kinds of happenings like my sister or I might. But he had one anyway, and it changed him (I hope).

I've dreamt about mom. A lot actually, and a lot while we were at sea. In most of my dreams she's there talking to me. I can't say I remember the topic of our conversations, but I can say that while it was happening it was so clear, so obvious that she was there, that we were having a conversation. I always wake up feeling comforted and at ease.

Four nights before she died I finally had my own epiphany and for the first time was sad for myself over her condition. I'd be so accustomed to staying strong for my dad and for my sister, and kept my feelings on the sidelines. It wasn't a conscious effort to do so. I just never really felt sad.

I had my fair share of sad moments, the worst of which was New Year's Eve, when Mia and I were in Åland with Johanna and Clint. Mom was still pretty clear on the phone then but talked very strange, a side effect of the steroid she was on. We didn't know it at the time, but she had by then had her last treatment (which I had taken her to in Philly a few days before Christmas). Her kidney's never recovered from that last Avastin treatment, and the doctors were never able to give her another one. It would have done more harm than good. By February, she had entered the hospice program. Anyway, that New Year's Eve I talked to her on the phone. When I hung up, I cried and cried and cried, in a back room of the house we were at. I felt so sad for my dad, for my family, and for my mom. It was not about me, but it was an emotional moment nonetheless.

Later, back in Sweden, Mia and I watched Moulin Rouge,  Mia's favorite movie and one in which I always cry at he end. It reminded me of my mom and dad's relationship, and both Mia and I had a good cry together that night before bed. It was the night before I flew home, without Mia, to be with my mom after she took a bad fall in the shower a week before, when I decided I needed to be at home, more for my dad's well-being than anything I could actually do for my mom. But even then I still wasn't sad for myself.

It was the Thursday before my mom died that it finally happened to me. She was in a hospital bed in the living room, had been since that Tuesday, and though we didn't know when, we all had a feeling that the end was nigh (it happened the following Monday morning). Mom was awake. I hugged her in her bed before Mia and I went downstairs to my room to go to bed ourselves. Mom stroked and patted my back like only a mom can, and it was the first time in a long time I remember her doing that. She felt more conscious  than before, like she knew what was coming. Mia and I went to bed, and I lost it. Finally. I went back upstairs with an urge to sit with her so strong that it was more a reaction than a decision. Mia took my dad into the back room to give us time alone together and I sat next to her hospital bed, held her hand and cried and cried and cried, sad finally for myself, the realization that I was losing my own mother, the optimism we'd maintained all throughout her two-and-a-half year journey with brain cancer giving way to the reality at hand in an overwhelming waterfall of emotion.

By then mom hadn't been 'present' much, in the mental state of the word. But that night, she looked me in the eye and seemed to hear every word I told her. I told her that she was the inspiration for everything that I did in my life, the reason I am the person I am. I thanked her for everything she'd done for me, and she continued looking at me, not saying anything but understood what I was telling her through the tears.

I told her she had my permission to die, and she looked me in the eye and said 'thank you.' It was the last thing she said to me.

By Saturday she had gone unconscious and wouldn't again open her eyes, save for a brief moment on Sunday, though she wasn't conscious. She died peacefully Monday morning, holding one hand in my dad's, who sat next to her on the bed on the most beautiful day we had had all spring - he had opened the windows that morning so she could hear the birds sing - and her other hand he placed on Oatie's (my dog) head, and she took her last breath. Dad came upstairs - me and my sister Kate had been sleeping in their bed - and said 'guys, I think it's over.'


My favorite 'spiritual' story is when my cousin Dan, exactly ten years older than me almost to the day, told me that his little boy Jack - named after my mom's dad, my grandfather - had said one day after his horse therapy (Jack has a form of Asperger's, which makes this story even more amazing), the day after my mom died, that Jack came home and said to Dan, 'dad, Aunt Gail was watching me today.'


I have not had the opportunity to reflect much on how I feel since then. Mia was already in Tortola, and was at sea en route to Bermuda the day of her funeral. I'm writing this from Terceira, in the Azores. We completed the crossing from Bermuda in twelve days, landing in Horta on the island of Faial, and have been enjoying every day since then. The place is incredible, nothing like what I expected (what did I expect?), and incredibly beautiful. The towns on these islands have a life of their own, independent of tourism and yachties, and could care less who visits them. Life goes on here, and a beautiful life it is.

Last night we sat out in the cockpit of Kinship, drinking Portugese wine and watching the full mooon rise over the sea wall. I was fully in the moment, but couldn't stop thinking about mom for some reason. Her mantra was always 'create your own reality,' and 'enjoy the moment,' and if there is anything I'm learning on this voyage, that's it, reinforced by the little moments Mia and I have been having remembering her.

I wish her and my dad could have experienced this together and I feel slightly guilty that I am here and they are not. Then again, they did experience this before, and she lived a fulfilled life, doing things in the moment when they were our age. But I don't think that makes it any easier for my dad to swallow that they will never have those moments again.

I didn't know where this post was going this morning when I started it (I came to the cafe to write some articles I have due in two weeks), but I had an overwhelming feeling that I needed to write something about mom. She's still the inspiration for everything I do in my life. That won't change because she's gone; in fact is stronger.

I find myself wanting to please her more in death that I did in life. I make my bed (and actually enjoy taking the time to make it nicely). The other night at a local bullfight on Terceira (they don't kill the bulls, but rather let them run through the village streets, six or seven guys controlling it - sort of - from the end of a long rope while people stand off to the sides on balconies and walls and the crazy ones tease the bull with umbrellas and red blankets). I could see the fear and confusion in the eyes of the bull as he trotted by, wondering what was happening and chasing off the teasing men while the spectators cheered, and I could hear my mom whispering in my ear that this was wrong, and my stomach kind of felt sick and my natural instinct was to go stand by the bull and pet him, comfort him and tell him it was okay, that I understood him, recognized his living spirit and enjoyed watching his strength and beauty. The villagers, though it's tradition, and less violent that previously, showed no respect for the animal, and I just had the sense that there was evil in that town, the worst kind of evil because the people thought they were doing good.

I left after the second round (of four), not wanting to watch any more of it, and strolled down the beautiful garden hillside back into the center of town thinking of my mom the whole way and knowing that she never would have gone in the first place, but feeling strangely good for the experience because it left me thinking a lot about her in the past two days since then, and thinking that she would have been proud of me for leaving.


We sail for Sao Miguel tonight, to the capital of the Azores, Ponta del Gado, a city we've been told will be far larger than any of us expects. The boat is ready to go - Mia and I did a major cleanup yesterday - and we'll get under way before dark.