Today is the Day Our Mother Died One Year Ago

Young Mom ice skatesOne year ago today, our lovely mother left the Earth. She was 94 and she wanted to go.  Blind for ten years and increasingly unstable, she had fallen and broken bones for the third time. In this episode it was her hip and collar bone. It was just too much. In a completely sound frame of mind, she chose the only way out available to her:  she stopped eating and drinking.

I am furious at our legal system that she could not have help in her passing from her doctors. They could have spared her three weeks of pain from the surgery that had to be done to address her acute fractures, and the ensuing discomfort from lack of food and hydration. My devoted sister, a highly experienced RN, nursed her at home in her own bed through those three weeks with the help of hospice and a team of caretakers. I was one of the team too. Chris made her as comfortable as humanly possible and certainly the worst of the pain was controlled with drugs, but the fact remains that she suffered unnecessarily for three weeks, when she could have simply gone to sleep. There is nothing more excruciating than watching a loved one suffer – nothing!

But there were truly some good points to having those weeks. She lost consciousness for the last five days, but until then she had wonderful conversations with all who came to say goodbye. Each visit with her four children, her grandchildren, and phone calls with her two sisters and nieces and nephews was an expression of gratitude for her interest in them, for her generosity in welcoming all to the family homestead in the upper reaches of Maine that she worked hard to maintain, for her gentle, supporting and fun-loving spirit. When I reached her bedside shortly after she made the decision to leave the Earth, our conversation went like this:

“Oh, Marcia… I’m so glad you’re here to help Chris.”

“I’m so sorry you had this bad fall, Mom.”

“Oh… I am too. It was so stupid. I was turning and was impatient. I was just so mad about how long it takes me to do anything that I turned too fast and lost my balance.”

“Sorry you had to go through so much. So, you decided to stop eating.”

“Yes. I’ve had a good life. So many lovely people, lovely children. But I’m not enjoying life. When you’re not enjoying life anymore….”

“I understand.”

Then she asked, “Are you enjoying life?”

I answered, “Well… it’s not over yet! Yes, I am. But… almost nobody gets through life unscathed.  It’s just the way it is. And you know that I went through some rough times. My cancer was rough and then losing Tim right after finishing chemotherapy. That was a tough go. But… you and Dad gave us a good foundation. With a good foundation, you can roll with life’s punches. I came out the other side and I am now doing fine and I owe it to you.”

She replied with a simple, “Thank you.”

That my sweet, humble mother could finally, in her last days on Earth, say “thank you” when I credit her with my resilience through tough times brought tears to my eyes. Finally, she could fully claim her worthiness. So, the most precious gifts in life were exchanged between her and those who loved her in those final weeks — expressions of deep gratitude for a life well-lived and loved that benefited all those in her sphere.

Here is a poem written by Andrea Mabee, wife of my oldest brother, Carleton, that was written for the spreading of Mom’s ashes on her beloved Maine farm. You should know that my mother was an accomplished sailor who loved to cruise the beautiful coast of Maine:


A  role model

A thinker


Always choosing to project the lime light away from her

Ever keeping her eyes on the horizon.

Eyes and nose into the wind

True and reliable

A smile and twinkle in her eyes

A supporter for worthy causes

The family cheerleader

Abundant with kind words

Stingy with criticism

Generous in spirit and heart

Lover of nature

Ready to laugh

Reluctant to complain

Genuine as “this is the real deal”


Mom, today we scatter your ashes in a place that is so dear to you. You have been and will always be the salt of the earth. We are all blessed to have been touched by your love, good nature and wisdom.


Mom in Chair w. hat


Dear Tim,

Dear Tim,

My first husband, Timothy Bell

My first husband, Timothy Bell

This month marks seven years since you left the earth. Much has happened since I last wrote you like this a year ago just before Susan’s wedding. So, first of all you should know that your beloved daughter had a charming June wedding at Helen’s gracious house. It was full of love beautifully expressed between Susan and Steven as they said their own vows to each other, but also full of the love from everyone present who wished them well. You were there too, especially in our hearts, but in a toast I stated in words that you were with us and very pleased with this marriage.

Susan-Steven dancing BEST

Steven and Susan Queen at their wedding

I was married too, in September. Remember when you were in the intensive care unit and we knew all was lost and you were dying, you said I should remarry? When I demurred, you answered, “You’ll be sad for awhile, but then you’ll meet someone and move on.” You were partially right. I don’t think you realized how long and deep grieving for you would take. I did meet someone, without trying. He came to me like a miracle. He was divorcing his wife, Alice, your old high school sweetheart. He knew about your death. He hoped we might at least share interests since you and Alice were so devoted to music and hoped to perform professionally. You would like David, I know, because you are the thread that brought us together.

My memoir, Naked Mountain, will be published on September 6th. You remember the very first drafts of the book that I began writing after my cancer diagnosis. I wasn’t sure I would live to see it published so I started it right away. I wanted so much to share the story of Naked Mountain – how we bought a mountain for weekend camping getaways, but as its treasures, one after another, revealed themselves we became passionate about preserving it. And we did — it is the Naked Mountain Natural Area Preserve, one of 63 in Virginia, and protected in perpetuity.

You were skeptical about this book at first. Do you remember? You were concerned about privacy and you were not sure I could do it. But when it was clear you would not live, that your life would be cut short at age 59, you began telling your doctors about the book and said you hoped they would read it. Well, now they can. I have kept in touch with Dr. Herman, and my own oncologist, Dr. Bristow. I will send them each a signed copy and express our gratitude for their valiant efforts.

I want you to know that the book is dedicated to you:  “In Loving Memory of Timothy Bell.” It tells the story of Naked Mountain, but it also shows how you loved Susan and me – how you devoted yourself to supporting Susan as she encountered a bewildering, often rejecting world. And what you said to me as I struggled with mortal fear, anxiety and pain. Those are words and actions that comfort me still even though the spectre of death from my cancer is truly gone.

Until next time my love,


Dear Tim,

My husband, Timothy Bell

It has been six years since your spirit left the Earth on this day in May.  I wanted to write to you and give you an update on how things are here on Earth.

First, the most important news is that your beloved daughter, Susan, is getting married on June 27th. She is marrying Steven.  You remember Steven:  steady, supportive, a rock under Susan’s sometimes slippery feet. The wedding will be at Helen’s house. They will take their vows under a gazebo by the pool surrounded by cascading roses.  You will be there in our hearts, but you are also welcome to eat cake and drink champagne!

     I am okay.  It has been six and a half years since I finished chemotherapy and I have not had a recurrence of my cancer.  In fact, I have done so well that my Hopkins’ oncologists discharged me from their care at the five year mark. I live now like a freed prisoner cherishing my unbelievable good luck. If only you could have shared in that providence and stayed with me. So unfair…
     Do you remember when your life was ebbing away, in the intensive care unit at Hopkins, you told me I should re-marry?  You said, “You will be sad for awhile, but then you will meet someone else and move on.”  Well, I am still sad, but the worst of the grieving finally subsided three and a half years after you left the Earth. You are still with me; I will never stop loving you, or missing you.  But, I want you to know that I have moved on, although wonderful widow’s groups I have found in books and on-line would replace that phrase with “moved forward” because we never leave behind our beloved deceased spouses.  I think you would be amazed, surprised, and pleased with who my new love is.
     Do you remember how you used to say, as we drove up our long gravel road to our beautiful little house on Naked Mountain:  “This is the place where all is well, and that Is all?” All is still well on Naked Mountain, but there have been some challenges. Last year around this time I received a letter from a subsidiary of Dominion Power telling me they wanted to access our property to conduct a survey for placement of a 42 inch natural gas pipeline. Their map showed it coming right across the top of the mountain about 150 feet from the house. Panicked, I called Natural Heritage and they went to work. Engaging their parent agency, the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), they met with Dominion, and followed up several times, telling them that the pipeline must not come across Naked Mountain, that it is one of their dedicated Natural Area Preserves.  So far, Dominion appears to have honored that request and I have heard nothing further.  Our passion to protect Naked Mountain, “in perpetuity,” by following through with the easement with DCR-Natural Heritage was tested to the limit and it looks like it has been sustained.  We did a very good thing!
     But Dominion still intends to build this massive pipeline and run it through 550 miles of Virginia, devastating  pristine forest, streams and wetlands, people’s farms, homes and places of business.  It has proposed several possible routes, one would cut right through the back of the Acorn Inn – remember how we used to stay there, with Kathy and Martin Versluys, when we were building the house? Some routes cut through John Ed Purvis’ farm at the base of Naked Mountain. Do you remember how kind he was to arrange to get us a “land use” tax rate? One route would plow through the end of our dear friends’ Chapin and Janice’s driveway, steps away from their house.  If that happens they will move; I will miss them terribly.
     Why is this happening?  Believe it or not this seems to be the unforeseen consequence of good climate change policy. Under President Obama’s second administration – he was re-elected by a wide margin – stringent carbon emission policies have been developed that will effectively shut down dirty, polluting coal fueled power plants.  Facing this prospect (the regulations are under legal challenge), companies like Dominion are scrambling to take advantage of new drilling technologies that allow them to access previously untapped riches of natural gas locked in shale formations far beneath the Earth’s surface.
     Is this fracked natural gas cleaner? Probably not. Methane is considered a significantly more harmful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and methane is released directly into the atmosphere during  the fracking extraction process.  In addition, leaking of natural gas that occurs during transport, and processing offers significant polluting opportunities to both air and water while adding to global warming.
     Could Dominion turn to clean solar or wind technologies instead?  Yes, but they think spending billions on fracking, building pipeline infrastructure, and processing is more profitable right this minute. They are not investing in logical, sustainable future technologies, even though those technologies are now coming on fast and are challenging power companies that fail to take the lead in production in sun-drenched states like Arizona.
     You should know that sleepy, charming Nelson County is fighting this pipeline like a pack of ferocious lions. I have never, in my entire professional lobbying career, seen anything like it! We are all in this together, fighting side-by-side.  And who knows, we may just win.  It won’t, and hasn’t been, easy because, as you know perhaps better than anyone, the United States is not a democracy that is “of the people, for the people, by the people.”  Long ago, money in politics began corrupting this process, the corruption now accelerated by the Supreme Court’s decision in the “Citizens United” case.  Our country is run by wealthy individuals and corporations.  In fact, you would be gratified to know that, a few months ago,  political scientists at Princeton University published a well-designed study of the political power structure in the United States and formally declared our system of government an oligarchy.  Believe me, no one in Nelson County is surprised by this.
     But here is some good news. Natural Heritage ecologists, botanists and stewards have visited Naked Mountain often over the years since you have been gone. The stewards have helped me manage the invasives, an on-going head-ache that I know you remember well.  The ecologists and botanists have been establishing vegetation plots to study changes over time, and re-found , then marked with GPS, the rare Torrey’s Mountain Mint in the barrens. That was an exciting day!
     And later this week two ecologists will come to Naked Mountain to begin a wonderful project:  they will do vegetative mapping of the entire preserve! Natural Heritage got a grant to do this as a pilot project and then decided, for a lot of reasons, to do it on Naked Mountain:  close to Charlottesville where the principal vegetation ecologist on the project lives; manageable size; not too disturbed by invasives.  Do you know what this means?  When they finish their work over the course of the summer, we will know every single tree species, shrub layer species, and herb layer species that grows in the entire preserve! Isn’t that fabulous?
      And… I am nearly done with my memoir.  You remember. I started it when I was diagnosed fearing I would not live long enough to write the story of how we bought the mountain, or as you liked to say, how you bought the mountain for me; how we kept encountering charming creatures that lived there; how we discovered the thousands and thousands of Shooting Stars and how, fueled by our growing conservation passion, we sought out Natural Heritage to help us protect it forever.  I have been working on the memoir with a wonderful editor and we are nearly done. I am very hopeful it will be published!  Guess what it’s called:  Naked Mountain.
     I have also developed a powerpoint presentation about the mountain called, “Naked Mountain:  The Delights and Challenges of Owning One of Virginia’s Natural Area Preserves.”  It is multi-media, featuring some interesting video clips, audio of bird sounds and some gorgeous photos that Gary Fleming, one of the wonderful ecologists that comes to Naked Mountain, has shared.  It also features some of my own photos.  My new love has been helping me learn how to take pictures. I enjoy trying to capture the blossoms, especially the context they show up in — their space. I give the talk to the various chapters of the Virginia Native Plant Society.  It has been well-received and I absolutely love doing it.
     Do you remember when we first learned your pancreatic cancer diagnosis and I was so terrified at the thought of losing you?  To comfort me you said, “Scatter my ashes among the wildflowers; that way I will always be with you.”  Susan and I did as you directed.  Here you are, growing so beautifully in the small barren right near the house:

Lyre-leaved Rock cress (Arabidopsis lyrata) and Spiderwort (Tradescantia)

Until next time, my love,