The leaves were already changing. The sumacs and the sassafras were orange red, the true harbingers of fall in Indiana. The corn stalks still stood but their leaves were turning to yellow and gold. The soybeans in the fields were also yellowing. Indiana. The beginning of fall.
Heidi's mom, Donna Jean Hansen Mills, just died a week ago. As I write this, we are returning from her beautiful memorial. We were with her when she died. It was an honor. I've known this good woman since the spring of 1977. She has been a constant in my life. And while Alzheimer's robbed her of her real self, much of our time in Indiana was about remembering who she was in her youth.
We poured through old albums, selecting pictures for the montage that played in her memorial service. Donna as a child, a teen, at her wedding, a young Army wife, a young mom. Donna in love, Donna in the 60's with frosted hair, Donna at kids' birthdays, surrounded by her grandkids, in shorts, in her wedding dress, in PJs...
We were surrounded by stories of Donna as a library aide who came to the rescue when kids were unfairly punished, Donna as the defender of folks being mistreated in a nursing home. We were reminded of her years delivering Meals on Wheels (she was also the beneficiary of these meals in her final days). She was a strong Christian woman who devoted much of her life to the unselfish service of others.
Her last visit to South Carolina was just days before she died. And while her mind and body were ravaged by this terrible disease, she was more joyful in those last days than I had seen her in years. She kept telling Heidi how happy she was. When I played some old timey songs for her, "Camptown Races", and "Old Susannah", and "The Red River Valley", she sang. Not the words to those old familiar tunes, but words of her own about her family, the flowers outside the window and her beloved dog. And the tune that she sang wasn't the melody that usually accompanied the chords, but a simple melancholy harmony. She sang her own song. And she was happy. Truly happy.
What a blessing. Because three days later, after waking up and being dressed, and slipping on her three watches and her favorite little girl shoes, after getting her morning kiss and hug from Big Bill, she just sat down on the couch and slipped away. Her body was alive for another day and a half, but by the time I got there on Saturday afternoon, I think she was already gone.
We were all with her when her body finally shut down, singing hymns, saying prayers and telling stories. Tears, laughter, prayers, hugs, many kindnesses from the nursing staff. Donna looking sweetly and serenely like an innocent child. Whispers of love and devotion, kisses on the forehead, kisses on the back of the hand. The screens on the machines showed the steady decline in her breathing and blood pressure, the final heartbeats.
And then she was gone. No more fears, no more suffering. No more indignities or confusion. She never had to live in a nursing home. She had very little physical pain. She loved and was loved by many. And she will be missed.
While dying is just exactly as natural as being born; while death is a debt we incur the very moment we take our first breath; while none of us ever gets out here alive... It's just so hard to say good bye.
But the seeds of our lives go on, right? Not just our children, but our words and deeds and stories become part of our own song. And it is sung long after we are gone from this world. While Donna was diminished by the disease that took her away, her song was long and beautiful and memorable.
One of Bill and Donna's legacies is their oldest child, the love of my life, Heidi Mills. And through Heidi, our wonderful sons. And Heidi's legacy will live on through the teachers she has connected with and the children they will teach. And through the written words in books and chapters and articles she has published. And through the kindnesses great and small, that she has shown to others. There have been many. And by the love she has shown to me. And so the very best of Donna will spin out and out and out.
While Donna Jean Hansen Mills is no longer with us, her goodness lives on. When I look into the eyes of my love - I get to see some of her mom.
And I am blessed.